The Congressional Program Helps Lawmakers Learn in a Politics-Free Zone

In July, the Institute's Congressional Program hosted its 400th breakfast, with Princeton professor and former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter discussing how Congress might confront the civil war in Syria. Despite the 8am start time and flurry of activity before August recess, 25 legislators attended and were so engrossed in the discussion that the seminar ran well over its scheduled hour. In an environment like Capitol Hill, where legislators are overbooked for every single 15-minute time slot every day, getting a group of 25 Republicans and Democrats to sit down together to focus on an issue for over an hour was a practically herculean feat.

The gathering might seem unlikely for several other reasons: The inflammatory rhetoric the public associates with Congress hardly seems likely to lead to serious study of a problem like Syria. In the scramble to keep their seats, legislators are packing their days with events directly or indirectly related to raising money to pay the ever-growing price tag of waging a contemporary campaign, leaving them little time to learn about the issues they legislate on. And legislators often seem to spend what time remains trading barbs with their opponents under the watchful eye of special interests and a content-hungry media.

It is in this milieu that the Institute's Congressional Program has flourished as an "intellectual spa," as Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) called it, for members of the United States Congress. Established in 1983 by former Senator Dick Clark, the program is a non-governmental, non-partisan educational initiative. Its intent is to inform lawmakers on critical public policy issues by holding conferences and seminars in which Republicans and Democrats study these issues under the tutelage of academics and other experts, exploring policy prescriptions free from the constraints of politics. As such, political neutrality is vital to the program—it does not identify with either party, nor does it endorse specific legislation.

Senator Clark was first elected to representthe state of Iowa in 1973. By the time he left office in 1979, he had noticed a disconcerting gap among legislators between policymaking and scholarship. He was particularly concerned about the lack of understanding in Congress of the intricacies of US-Soviet relations, which were, of course, of paramount importance during the Cold War. As both a senator and an academic (he holds a Ph.D. in Russian History) Clark was uniquely positioned to bring political leaders and scholars together to probe the nuances of East-West relations.

Clark presented his idea to David Hamburg, then president of the Carnegie Corporation, and found in Hamburg a kindred spirit and a willing supporter.
Since then, many others have helped the Congressional Program further its
mission. In addition to support from Carnegie, the program now receives funding from a diverse group, including the Asia Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation, all of which share the desire to help Congress to craft more informed and thoughtful legislation. Over the years, the program’s topics have evolved to reflect the times, covering everything from energy security, the Muslim world, US-China relations, and education reform.

In 2011, Clark retired as director of the program and welcomed former Congressman and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman as his successor. "Despite the collective partisan atmosphere, most members of Congress are talented and really want to do what they believe is right for their constituents and the country," Glickman said. "Unfortunately, the overall atmosphere doesn’t provide adequate incentives to achieve that. And that is the gap that the Congressional Program tries to fill; a safe space, devoid of partisan bickering and out of the reach of the media, where there can be, and is, a serious discussion of issues facing America."

Though the hot-button issues have changed, the structure of the program has remained constant. Each year, the program hosts four multi-day conferences, domestically and abroad, and around 25 breakfast seminars. All meetings are off the record and exclusively for legislators and experts—no congressional staff, lobbyists, or press allowed. This atmosphere facilitates a focus on the issues, and offers a rare moment for legislators to forage for bipartisan consensus. Legislators cite the academic perspective, freewheeling debate, and immersion as distinctive. "We are not making speeches to our special interest constituents or to a C-SPAN audience or an individual lobbyist," said one Congressional Program alumnus. "It's an off-the record discussion and it's much more collegial."

More than 180 senators and representative from this 112th Congress have attended  at least one of the Congressional Program’s events. Over the years, 14 program alumni have gone on to become cabinet secretaries, nine have become governors, three have become speaker of the house, and two have become vice president. But popularity alone is not the true measure of the program's success—significant success comes from delivering results, and numerous legislative initiatives have indeed sprung out of program seminars and conferences.

One notable example is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act—seminal nuclear non-proliferation legislation that has become the blueprint for subsequent acts and treaties. Nunn-Lugar led to the deactivation of over 6,000 nuclear warheads, and the destruction of over 500 ballistic missiles, 400 missile silos, 150 bombers, 500 submarine-launched missiles, and 700 nuclear air-to-surface
missiles, and has helped almost 60,000 scientists formerly employed building weapons of mass destruction find employment tearing them down. Senator Lugar, who is one of the program's strongest supporters, credits Congressional Program events with helping instigate and shepherd the legislation along. "Meetings sometimes involved substantial Russian delegations, including members of the Duma and individuals from eastern European countries, Russian exiles, and scholars gifted in nuclear technology proliferation and methodology," Lugar said. "Meetings were held in Russia or Eastern Europe because many of these persons could not travel elsewhere. Their participation offered our participating members of Congress invaluable bridges of understanding of former Soviet governance and the insight into the successor states."

The landmark No Child Left Behind Act was also born at a Congressional Program event out of a conversation between House Education Committee members George Miller, Democrat of California, and John Boehner, Republican of Ohio. "We got to know one another and decided we'd give it our best effort to see if we could have a bipartisan bill that turned out to be the most dramatic reform of education policy in this country in the last 30 years," Miller said.

Glickman is now refocusing the program's foreign affairs topics to mirror the evolving international dynamic. "We survey members of Congress to see what topics they would like to explore and what areas of the world they would like to focus on," he said. "Because of a broader shift in American focus globally, there is a growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America." Conferences planned for the upcoming year include a gathering in India focused on the intersection of terrorism, nuclear security, development, and energy, an Istanbul examination of the US role in fostering positive change in the Muslim world, and a discussion on the challenges and opportunities presented by changing dynamics in Africa.

"Aspen Congressional Program events are among the most valuable learning experiences I've had as a member of Congress," said Representative Tom Cole (R-OK). "The access to experts, focus on policy analysis, and opportunities for bipartisan camaraderie greatly enhance the knowledge base and efficacy of each participant. The program also allows members to take a break from politics and participate in serious study of the pressing issues on which we cast our votes. I don’t know of any other program that provides such direct access to world leaders in an atmosphere of scholarly, non-partisan study. The program has been an invaluable complement to my tenure in Congress."

Douglas Farrar is a Congressional Associate with the Institute’s Congressional Program.