A two-day program organized by the Pomona Student Union (PSU) brought former Representatives Dennis Hertel (D-MI) and Denny Smith (R-OR) to campus Sep. 28-29 to provide insight into the legislative process and perspectives on current political situations. Over the two days, the congressmen attended six classes, participated in two student interviews, ate four meals with students and professors, and interacted with more than 200 students.
PSU had been planning Congress to Campus, a program run through the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership, for over a year. This program marked the first time the organization has brought congressmen to Pomona’s campus.
The Monday night debate in Rose Hills Theatre, “The Age of Obama: Two Differing Perspectives,” began by focusing on the economy. Both congressmen advocated freezing the budget, which Hertel said would force people to re-evaluate what’s most important, make decisions, make cuts, and re-distribute money. Smith declared the budget the single most important issue for the current government.
“This spending is clearly the most important thing in Congress,” Smith said. “[Debt] is a drastic problem for this country [and will be] for generations to come.”
Obama’s health care plan is also problematic for Smith, who claimed it violated the Fourth Amendment and privacy rights. He stated that there is “nothing in a single-payer philosophy that will get Republicans to vote” to approve the plan, though Hertel countered that most bills passed in the past 50 years have been passed by partisan votes.
The topic of carbon emission taxes elicited the strongest audience reaction. Both congressmen believed the bill passed by the House in July regulating carbon emissions does not have a viable chance to pass in the Senate, and Smith questioned how taxes would be used if the bill succeeds. In response to students who asked what solution he would offer, Smith questioned the severity of climate change.
“I don’t believe we have climate change as [many people believe],” Smith said. “We’ve had climate change over a long time, but I don’t think this is any different. It will handicap us if we tax society too much.”
Neither congressman supported Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s 2010 budget for military spending. They noted that air superiority is key to defense, and both emphasized strong defense in response to fear of a strong Chinese government.
“We have sold the soul of our government [in depending on overseas production], and the debt makes us beholden to the Chinese government,” Hertel said.
Smith’s assessment was more gloomy.
“Before I die—and I’m 71 and a half years old—I expect to be in a serious conflict with the Chinese,” Smith said.
The congressmen also visited six classes, two of which were led by Michael Teter, assistant professor of politics. Teter was concerned that Hertel and Smith would have a hard time connecting with the students and vice-versa because of the age gap, but the congressmen drew connections between the economic situation when they entered Congress in 1981 and the one today.
“For Pomona, being so far away from Washington, D.C., it’s easy to get disconnected from what’s going on,” Teter said. “As intelligent and savvy as our students are, it’s just not a part of their everyday lives to know what’s going on in Congress and to think about the role it plays in their lives. That distance between Washington and Claremont might be bridged a little bit during [the congressmen’s] time on campus.”
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for students to interact [with congressmen],” said Pauline Want PO ’12, a student in one of Teter’s classes who also ate lunch with Hertel and Smith. “Seeing actual people who worked in Congress makes it more realistic and more exciting.”
Hertel and Smith participate in Congress to Campus on a regular basis to give students insiders’ perspectives on the legislative process and help them realize their responsibility to their government.
“Those seated in Congress won’t tell you what’s behind the tent,” Smith said. “We try to give you the behind-the-scenes [viewpoint]. An interest in politics is a privilege and a burden you have to carry as a citizen.”
As a college student, Hertel heard the late Congressman Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) speak through Eastern Michigan University’s Student Union program. After the speech, Hertel said, he approached Ribicoff and asked him why he came to the university to speak. Ribicoff replied that he wanted young people to become involved in politics and improve the country, a response that reminded Hertel of the famous line from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“I think it’s that continuation,” Hertel said, “That ideal that you get people to understand their government, you get a few to participate and maybe [you get] a very few to work in government.”