When Surreal Becomes Normal

December 4, 2009

Live in Washington long enough and you are bound to be star struck at some point. I remember the first time I went for a run around the Washington Monument and suddenly being overcome by a crowd of people running towards the White House just as Marine One was touching down on the South Lawn. Although I could barely make out the dotted figure across the lawn, it was exciting to be within eyesight of the President. Growing up in the Midwest, Washington and all of its major players seemed so far-flung, so watching President Obama exiting his helicopter a few hundred feet away from me was too surreal. I’ve been fortunate to experience numerous unique encounters while working on The Hill this semester. Like the first time I got stuck riding in an elevator with a Congressman; or the time a security guard let me sneak into George Washington University to listen to a roundtable discussion between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CNN moderator Christiane Amanpour; and the time a reporter from Roll Call called me to do an interview about Running Start.

Alongside these Washington “celebrities” roaming the halls of Congress and Pennsylvania Ave, DC is a vibrant city with a lot going on (sometimes too much). One of the many benefits of working on the Hill is the countless resources at my disposal. I’m free to choose between dozens of hearings, briefings, and press conferences taking place daily on the Hill, where I can listen to Iranian reporters brief Congress on the current political climate in Iran, or Foreign Affairs Committee members debate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. In every committee room, a breaking news story is being cultivated, and I’m right there to witness history being made. This couldn’t be truer of the health care debate that has persevered throughout the semester. Some might say that I am lucky (some may think otherwise) to have witnessed such historical legislation get debated during my tenure on the Hill. These past four months, I’ve anxiously waited as numerous health care bills were drafted in House and Senate committees, and watched the House debate and pass H.R.3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. I did my part by handling hundreds of constituent letters and phone calls that advocated either for or against health care reform. This next month I’ll relive the same anticipation as the Senate debates and votes on their health care bill. Being here during this tumultuous time and watching these health care bills make their way to the top has given me not only a greater understanding of how the legislative process works, but more confidence to voice my opinion on this issue.

For many staffers, health care reform is just one of many pieces of legislation that will be passed this year. Even if staffers do have their own personal opinions on the issue, the actual legislative process—including the media circus that comes with every contentious piece of legislation—is routine for them. As I became more comfortable in my office the everyday happenings on the Hill were becoming routine for me as well. With so many opportunities available on and off the Hill I was getting used to this “surreal” lifestyle. My perception of what constituted normal was changing; surreal was the new normal.

It took just one day at home during Thanksgiving break for me to snap back into reality and recognize that these everyday happenings in DC are not normal. Nowhere outside of the beltway can one attend a full committee hearing on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan one day and a Homeland Security full committee hearing on Tareq and Michaele Salahi’s security breach at the White House State Dinner the next. Getting outside the beltway for a few days made me realize that DC is unlike any other city, with a personality of its own that must not be taken for granted. So even if I run the risk of looking too much like an intern while scribbling down notes as a committee hearing, or ingenuous while gawking at Marine One flying towards the White House, I’ll take my chances.

– Elizabeth A., Star Fellow Fall 2009

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