|Younger Member Perspective: ASCE Annual Legislative Fly-In|
By: Peter S. Mancuso, P.E. |
The prospect of attending ASCE's Annual Legislative Fly-In had been on my mind for quite a while. The conference always sounded a bit too involved in politics for my liking. Lessons in civics were never my strong suit. However, my interest in the policies that shape both my personal life and professional career has increased in recent years. As times have gotten harder for those close to my position, I began to question why more wasn't being done to insure that this country's talented engineering force was being put to work for a better tomorrow. I began to hear about the opportunities the Fly-In offered, especially in the realm of influencing real change. With the hope of escaping my comfort zone and expanding my boundaries, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to register for the 2012 Fly-In. With the tip of a hat from both the Metropolitan Section Board of Directors and my employer, I signed up and was suddenly on my way to one of the most important learning experiences of my life.
The 2012 Annual Legislative Fly-In is designed to feed as much information to the attendees as possible in a two-day period. The first day is dedicated to introductions, workshops, lunches, lectures and keynote speakers, all geared towards filling our hearts and minds with a sense of duty as professionals in our field to guide our congressmen and congresswomen in the right direction. The conference had two main goals. The first; to urge Congress to authorize a Multi-Year Surface Transportation Bill, the second; to urge Congress to authorize both the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP). Every year, ASCE members from all over the country converge on Washington, DC to take part in the event.
The first program I attended was designed specifically for me. Representatives from ASCE's Committee on Younger Members (CYM) introduced approximately 30 of us, all younger members, to the conference layout and ASCE's expectations. I quickly discovered that many of us were first-timers, were equally uncertain of what lobbying entailed, and were generally optimistic and excited to help in any way we could. The program was extensive, and included lessons on the "elevator pitch" a business strategy that many of us had never tried. After a short exercise, my fears were confirmed: I was a horrible salesperson. I didn't let this deter me from continuing my journey, though. I knew I just needed practice.
During the introduction session, my spirits lifted again when I realized that individuals from very different parts of the country could meet under a common purpose and work together towards the same goal. I was amazed at how almost everyone at the conference had the same concerns and views. Since it was inevitable that we would all be split up in order to cover as much ground as possible, I was also relieved to see that I was not the only person from my congressional district. I was introduced to a woman named Anahid Andonian who was recently hired by the same company that I worked for, only in a different department. By the second day of the conference, hours before we were to meet with our congressional representative, Anahid and I had soaked up as much information as we could, learned important pitching skills, and related to one another the talking points we each wanted to cover individually. We were ready.
Meeting with your legislators is no easy task. The first step is to make an appointment. This task sounds simple enough until you realize just how many people are jockeying for a position to schmooze with said legislator, particularly those that are located in heavily populated urban areas. The more pleasant option is to have an organization like ASCE do the grunt work for you. Once you have claimed that precious sliver of time, you need to get to Washington, DC – a harrowing journey if you are driving through fog for four hours during an early and unseasonably warm spring, as I did. After you have congratulated yourself for arriving safe and sound, you are confronted with a seemingly simple yet incredibly deceiving map of Capitol Hill. The buildings that house the offices of senators and representatives surround the side of the Capitol building that corresponds with where the Senate or the House of Representatives sessions occur. This positioning makes sense. However, the placement of offices within the buildings is anything but. Add to that the knowledge of tunnels that connect all the buildings on the hill combined with a desire not to be subjected to yet another security line, and the prospect of finding your legislator in a reasonable amount of time can become a complex game of labyrinth.
Though difficult, it is not impossible to navigate the marble halls of Capitol Hill. The lobbies are brimming with people from all walks of life. Staffers in suits coexist with tourists in shorts and flip-flops. Lines of people snake out offices while nearby doors to conference rooms open and close quickly. Impromptu meetings in the lobby abound. Anahid and I found ourselves in front of the large imposing wood door of Representative Robert Turner. Feeling timid in those grandiose halls amidst people walking around with purpose, we turned the knob and entered the den of excitement and urgency that is Mr. Turner's office. The moment before we opened that door, there was no hint of the din from within, but suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of all the action. A man who could pass as a secretary or professional aide greeted us when we entered, verifying that we had an appointment. Luckily, he had precise information about the whereabouts and estimated arrival time of the other half of our party. We were invited to wander and explore or sit and relax while we waited patiently. Offers of a beverage made me feel like a customer being conditioned for a sale at a fancy jewelry or clothing boutique. Anahid and I spent the time further discussing the virtues of our purpose and the reasons for our concern. No amount of preparation for this meeting could rival the power and effectiveness of an old-fashioned pep talk. Anahid and I traded stories and examples that we filed away in our heads for later reference. Simultaneously, we used them as fuel for our enthusiasm and passion for the issues we were about to discuss. Finally, the moment arrived. The large front door opened and our House Representative walked in unceremoniously, wearing a look that hinted at the fact that he is perpetually late for something important.
After a miniscule discussion between Mr. Turner and a staff member that involved schedules and time restraints, we were asked to enter his office with a small yet courteous smile. Introductions were kept short but were accompanied by a firm handshake and an offer to sit anywhere we felt comfortable. After grabbing a seat, I mentally counted the occupants in the room. Present were Anahid, Mr. Turner, an aide, and myself. Two of us. Two of them. I noticed that our seating positions were ideal for intimate conversation. I couldn't dwell on numbers for too long because we had a lot of work to do and little time to do it. We had spent the last two days perfecting our pitches, organizing our thoughts on paper, and imagining the ideal flow of this meeting. After meticulously following our planned opening talking points, it became clear that the conversation would be much more organic than expected. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a back and forth discussion of the priorities and concerns of New Yorkers, the unfortunate realities of a nonexistent surface transportation program, the consequences of extending an existing bill rather than passing a new and improved multi-year bill. Our reality drove home the point. The more we talked about our personal experiences, the more enthralled our representative and aide became. We mentioned projects they are familiar with, one in particular that is in our own district and is reeling from the current economic and political environment. Anahid mentioned her narrow escape from unemployment and I followed with a quick story of former colleagues that were not so lucky. Our fears aligned with theirs, and their sympathy was written all over their faces. They understood our concerns, and appeared impressed with our professional experience and local knowledge. We were clearly constituents and worthy of their time and attention.
Before we knew it, the meeting was over. After spending approximately ten minutes with us, our representative had to leave to perform the duties of his position. I asked politely if we could take a photo with him, and he happily obliged. Then, with a quick expression of gratitude for his time on both our parts, he was gone. It was only after he had left the room that I realized Anahid and I were not alone. The aide, assigned as a specialist for transportation issues, was eager to continue speaking with us. We continued chatting about some of the projects and successful programs we discussed earlier and provided him with copies of our notes and an ASCE-prepared packet full of helpful facts, statistics, and other informational material. He made it clear that he is supportive of our cause and wants us to get in touch with him in the future as we see fit. We said our goodbyes, and exited through the large wooden front door. We found ourselves back in the lobby, only this time we felt empowered, as if we alone owned those marble halls.
Later we heard from our colleagues that many had shared similar experiences. A few others were not so lucky, but that is the reality of the political machine. During the ASCE President's Congressional Reception, some of us were fortunate enough to be joined by the various staffers that we had engaged with during the day. The chance to carry on a more in depth conversation on the issues was both a surprise and a relief. I took the time to speak at length with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's transportation aide, who like others had come for the free food and drinks, but stayed for the networking opportunities. In the end, though unsure of our direct influence on the system, we were certain that our voice was heard loud and clear. As for me, I can say that the trip was one of the most valuable experiences to date, as both a civil engineer and an American citizen.
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