Inside the Beltway

By Sean Theriault

For the last 9 years, I have taken a group of undergraduate researchers to Washing-ton, D.C. The students are all part of my undergraduate research team. This past year, for the first time, I combined forces with Professor Bryan Jones to offer a year-long research course. About one-half of the students’ obligation is to help us conduct our research. The second half of their obligation is to write-up an original research paper using the data that they have gathered for us. The students present their research during UT’s Research Week every spring.

We take the trip to Washington, D.C., so that the students can match their data gathering efforts to the real work of politics in the Nation’s Capital. The meetings that we had on our 2010 trip were typical of meetings we have had in the past. In our meetings with the Chiefs-of-Staff to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, to Minority Leader John Boehner, and to Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, we learned how the legislative process works behind the scenes. In our meetings with a researcher at the Congressional Research Service, a legislative counsel at the House Legislative Counsel’s Office, and the House Parliamentarian, we learned how Congress has come to rely upon a group of nonpartisan professionals to effectively and efficiently accomplish the tasks at hand. In our meetings with a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the archivists at Legislative Records at the National Archives we learned how it is that scholars observe the process and what we can learn from their observations. Finally, in our meeting with a  special assistant to President Obama we learned how decision-making happens in a modern, heavily bureaucratic institution.

During the meetings, the students get to learn about politics from the behind the scenes, both figuratively and, this year, literally. This year we were fortunate enough to visit both the Democratic and Republican Cloakrooms in the House of Representatives. Both in who we meet and what they show us, our eyes are opened and we have a newfound respect for both the political process and the professionals who make it work.

Most important from my perspective, though, is that the students get to see if the theories that they have been working on all year bear out in the way that politics is practiced in Washington.  By the end of our trip, the students come away with a greater appreciation for both politics and political science. They appreciate politics more because they see how smoothly it works outside the spotlight of the television camera. While blowhard politicians are engaging in partisan battles in front of the media, their staffs are figuring out how to get the details right so that the legislation, when passed, will actually do what it is supposed to. They appreciate political science more because they see how well our theories (and their own) hold up inside the real world of politics.

Perhaps the aspect of the trip that I enjoy most is when my former researchers meet with my current students. My research alums are in a number of different Capitol Hill offices, lobby groups, campaign organizations, and inter- est groups throughout Washington. The current students’ eyes are opened to all of the various jobs that are available upon their own graduation from UT with a Government degree. In a couple of instances, my former researchers have even hired my current researchers!

All of this could not be possible without the generous support of Mr. George Mitchell and the University Co-Op, the University’s Vice President for Research Juan Sanchez, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies Paul Woodruff, the Dean of Liberal Arts Randy Diehl, and Chairman of the Government Department Gary Freeman.

Sean Theriault is associate professor of government. Theriault specializes on the U.S. Congress and, among many other teaching awards, received the 2009 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship. He received his Ph.D. in political science in 2001 at Stanford University.