Shutdown Shapes Congressional Fellowship

When alumna Lindsey Herbel left for Washington, D.C., in August to prepare for her Congressional Fellowship program, a partial federal government shutdown was not on her agenda.

Herbel (B.S. ’06, M.S. ’08, J.D. ’13, Ph.D. ’14) was more concerned with settling in her D.C. apartment, learning the city and getting acclimated to the Hill as one of the 2013-14 Congressional Fellows selected through the American Political Science Association.

Encouraged by two mentors and former fellows, Amy McKay and professor Amy Steigerwalt with the College of Arts and Sciences, Herbel applied to the nation’s oldest congressional fellowship program. The program is devoted to expanding knowledge and awareness of Congress by providing select political scientists, journalists, doctors, federal executives and international scholars a “hands-on” understanding of the legislative process through service on congressional staffs for nine months.

Instead, Herbel, a political scientist and attorney, has had a front row seat to the shutdown and its affects on the nation’s Capitol, as well as several other well-publicized events.

“Things have been quite remarkable since I’ve arrived,” Herbel says. “There was a mass shooting; the federal government closed its doors; a mentally ill woman led D.C. police on a fatal car chase; and a man lit himself on fire at the Capitol. All of these things happened within a mile or so of my apartment.”

Herbel says as a shutdown loomed, D.C. had an air of excitement with the sense that it might be only a few days.

“Now as this drags on, the mood is somber, extremely partisan, and there’s a lot of trash that needs to be picked up around the National Mall,” Herbel says. “Many restaurants and businesses in my neighborhood are virtually empty and except for the few people that jump the barricades, our national monuments stand alone, gathering dust. It is sad.”

“As far as how the shutdown has impacted things, I know a lot of furloughed people who are worried and being careful to watch their spending,” she says. “I am incredibly lucky that I get paid through the American Political Science Association, and not the federal government.”

Now that the shutdown has ended, Herbel and her fellowship cohort will begin information interviews with different offices to learn how the offices are run and meet with the chiefs of staff or legislative directors. The fellowship runs from November to August.

“Because of my research interests and skill set, I’m shooting for placement on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Herbel says, “unless I can persuade Elizabeth Warren’s office to let me work for it. I’d scrub the floors if it meant working for her.”

The fellowship program’s orientation is scheduled to start in the coming weeks, after which the work will begin.

“I imagine there will be a backlog of work in many offices, especially those who initially deemed a large portion of their staff as nonessential,” Herbel says. “I’m willing to do whatever work must be done, but hope to be making valuable contributions to policy. In the past, fellows have done everything from casework, to speech writing, memo drafting, policy research and assisting in committee proceedings.

“Given the deep budget cuts that congressional offices have had to make, I think whichever offices hire fellows will be lucky to have an extra set of skilled hands to assist with the backlog at no cost to their office,” she says.

Before Herbel left for Washington, D.C., she hoped to use her legal skill set to “really do something that would create a lasting impact” on the Hill. Her goal was to combine her political science and legal educations to gain experience that would set her apart after she completes her dissertation and enters the academic job market.

“Working on the Hill will provide an opportunity to affect more people,” Herbel says. “The experience will be fast paced. There is an electric energy there.”

She credits law professors Courtney Anderson, Natsu Saito and Neil Kinkoff with providing insights into how the law could be used to help impoverished populations and in considering alternative career paths.

“Lindsey really picked up on the need to analyze the source of information on which policy decisions are based, and also the importance of using legal interventions to mitigate policy together with solutions based in other disciplines,” says Anderson, assistant professor of law. “I hope the course gave her a broad understanding of what the law can do, particularly the importance of using nontraditional lawyering techniques to achieve social justice.

“I hope she uses this experience to understand how her technical legal and doctoral skills can translate into being a strong advocate for an underserved population,” Anderson says, adding Herbel’s diverse education in political science and law made her standout despite the fellowship program’s competitive nature.

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