ASCE Congressional Fellow Finds Life on Capitol Hill Fast-Paced

June 2, 2014
Theresa Harrison, P.E., EVN SP, M.ASCE, left, began her year-long ASCE Congressional Fellowship in the office of New York Senator Charles E. Schumer on January 6. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrison
Theresa Harrison, P.E., EVN SP, M.ASCE, left, began her year-long ASCE Congressional Fellowship in the office of New York Senator Charles E. Schumer on January 6. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrison

The first thing ASCE’s newest Congressional Fellow, Theresa Harrison, P.E., EVN SP, M.ASCE, learned about working in a Senator’s office is just how fast-paced an environment it is.

“I started on January 6 this year,” recalled Harrison, who is serving on the staff of New York Senator Charles E. Schumer. “In the first 20 minutes in the office I was handed my Blackberry and the password to my computer and told, ‘Okay, we have four meetings and three teleconferences today and you are in all of them because you are now a full member of the staff and we need you there.’

“And I thought ‘Wow, I don’t even know anything about the subjects these folks are talking about today.’ The very first teleconference actually involved Senator Schumer. He was in upstate New York going to a press conference and he needed information from staff.”

“I was just amazed,” Harrison says, “at how quickly [staff was able to] inform Senator Schumer about what the press conference [was] all about.

“It was like, wham, bam! We never do things like that in the engineering field. I have always been used to running my numbers 49 times forward and backwards and making sure they are absolutely right. What I found out very quickly was: Time is of the essence and you simply cannot do that here.”

All this was quite a bit of change for Harrison, who is accustomed to doing things in an organized, engineering sort of way where you plug in information and come up with a highly thought-out answer based on all the facts.

Harrison began her civil engineering career in 1979 working for South Bend, Indiana–headquartered Cole Associates, Inc. A former ASCE Region 4 Governor, she also worked as an assistant city engineer for the City of Mishawaka, Indiana, from 1986 to 1987, and as a senior engineer, primarily in the highway department, for Lawson-Fisher Associates P.C., beginning in 1997.

Many, like Harrison, participate in the Congressional Fellows program by taking a leave of absence from their regular jobs. A fellow becomes directly involved in the process of crafting federal legislation and advising members of Congress, and benefits by learning how the federal government operates, developing leadership skills, expanding his or her horizons, and having the opportunity to make an impact.

Being a congressional fellow is something Harrison had long thought about doing.

“I was always very interested in how I could learn more about the political process, how policy effects the civil engineering profession, because I have a background in both consulting and engineering,” says Harrison, whose three children Gabriella, Christopher, and Amelia are of a similar age to most of the staff she is working with. “And especially with the city engineering position [Mishawaka], it was very exciting because I felt like I had an immediate impact upon the citizens of the town, who would on a daily basis come to my office, if not for a crack in the sidewalk, then for a problem with the sewer or the water main or a traffic signal. In my position, I was able to respond to those needs and fix things right away.”

 A Major Life Change

FELLOWSHIP FAMILY

Theresa Harrison with her family in Budapest, Hungary. From left, son Christopher, an architect; husband Greg, a retired mechanical engineer; daughter Gabriella, a mechanical engineer; daughter Amelia, a naval architect marine engineer; and Theresa. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrison

It was when all of her children graduated from college and she left her job at Lawson-Fisher last spring, that Harrison believed she could finally apply to become a congressional fellow.

“I heard about this fellowship, and I thought this time I am just going to go for it,” she remembered. “Next thing I knew I was on the shortlist of applicants and I got called for an interview. Before I left Washington last spring I got the call from Martin Hight [ASCE’s senior manager of Government Relations] and he said, ‘Congratulations you are a Congressional Fellow!’

Harrison’s husband, Greg, who only recently retired this May as a mechanical engineer after a 32-year career with Bosch, fully supported her year-long move to Washington D.C., and figured this would be an easy transition. However, it was a little more difficult than either of them anticipated.

“It was a major life change,” recalled Harrison, who rented an apartment in the District of Columbia. “We were all really excited about it and [figured we’d] thought it all through, but [having been married for] 35 years, we realized it was a major, major change to be apart for the longer stretches of time. But I have been able to see him every month so far; either I’ve come home [to Michigan] or he’s come to D.C. for an extended weekend.

“Now that he is retired and we see each other for longer stretches at a time, he jokes that maybe he can move to Washington and find a job in Congress as a lobbyist.”

Say Goodbye to Mathematical Computations

FELLOWSHIP 3

“The process that you have to go through and how all these relationships work is incredibly complex and convoluted to me but I am learning,” says Theresa Harrison, who participated in the Cherry Blossom 5K Run-Walk in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrison

Welcome to the world on Capitol Hill, where getting legislation passed and securing the funding for a project to move forward have more to do with building relationships and understanding the political process than mathematical computations and knowing your facts and figures.

“There is no such thing as setting up a simple meeting here,” laughed Harrison, who graduated from the University of Michigan with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. “The process that you have to go through and how all these relationships work is incredibly complex and convoluted to me, but I am learning.

“The thing that dumbfounded me the most was I always thought that there was one committee in [both in the Senate and the House of Representatives] that regulated all the funding. Well, while working on aspects of the transportation bill, I found that [the funding] was separated out from, and under the jurisdiction of several committees completely unrelated to, the rest of the bill. So as a civil engineering consultant, in the past, working on an infrastructure project, you did not have to know which committee had jurisdiction over what part of the bill you were working on…it seemed to be simply tied to a program. It just never made much sense why we had to jump through so many hoops and applications for our clients…now as I am attending some of those committee hearings it is starting to make some sense!”

Harrison has high praise for her new colleagues.

“I don’t think I have ever come across people who are more dedicated or hard working than the staffers in these [congressional] offices. Just what they go through on a daily basis to collect all this information for the Senator – putting together his talking points or his speeches; supporting him in every hour of the day, whether it is a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting or a 10 p.m. after-dinner speech – it’s just amazing, ” Harrison says.

Best Professional Learning Experience of My Life

FELLLOWSHIP 2

“Be ready for something unlike you have ever done before as a civil engineer,” says Theresa Harrison. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrison

The Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows Program was first organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1973. Since then, ASCE has joined 22 other engineering and scientific societies that sponsor Fellows.

Since its inception the Congressional Fellows Program has had several objectives. First and foremost has been to create a cadre of congressional staffers who understand science and engineering and enhance the capabilities of Congress to deal with those issues. A second objective has been to develop a group of scientists and engineers who understand Congress and who will return to help the science and engineering community improve its ability to impact public policy. The third objective has been to expose members of Congress and their staffs to the ways of thinking in scientific and engineering fields, and the final objective has been to make it easier for the general scientific and engineering community to deliver messages to Congress.

Begun in July 1996 when the ASCE Board of Direction approved funds to initiate an ASCE Congressional Fellows Program, the program provides an opportunity for a Society member to work for 1 year as a member of staff for a Congressional Committee, U.S. Senator, or member of the U.S. House of Representatives. John Hemphill, A.M.ASCE, was selected as the first ASCE Congressional Fellow in January 1997 and served with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where he was active in efforts to reauthorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. Theresa Harrison is now the 18th ASCE congressional fellow.

“The fellowship was the best professional learning experience of my life,”  shared Yumei Wang, P.E., F.ASCE, chair of ASCE’s Executive Committee on the Council on Disaster Risk Management, Geohazards Section Leader at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, and a congressional fellow in 2000.

“I got an expansive view of how civil engineering and the infrastructure we design affects families, small business, big businesses, and our entire community,” Wang says. “My responsibilities working in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy [D-Massachusetts] were in the area of the environment, transportation, energy, and appropriations, and it really opened my eyes to how important it is for civil engineers to be proactive to address aging infrastructure and advancing infrastructure technology.”

“Be ready for something unlike you have ever done before as a civil engineer,” adds Harrison.

 Sounding Like We Know What We Are Talking About

Theresa Harrision, left, and her husband, Greg. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrision

Theresa Harrision, left, and her husband, Greg in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Theresa Harrision

So what exactly does a congressional fellow do and is it as exciting as it sounds?

“Well, I don’t open mail or answer the phones. That’s what the interns tend to do,” joked Harrison

“Right now [in April] we are going through appropriations so if any of the issues [we are working] requires what we call a ‘letter of support’ for certain levels of funding, I have been involved in writing and editing the ones that are transportation or infrastructure related. They tend to run those by me [and ask,] Does this make sense engineering-wise?

“I also work directly with the Senator’s state directors, and there are eight of those. One of the very first things that I was charged with was reaching out to every one of these people and also the metropolitan planning organizations’ directors, and asking them what issues they needed help with in terms of transportation and infrastructure.”

Harrison says the learning process is a 2-way street; the staff is learning about infrastructure-related issues and she is learning about the political process in Washington.

“Yes, they do look to me and ask me about how this works or that,” she notes. “We had an issue that involved traffic signals and I’ve done intersection design and highway design for years and I was able to rewrite this letter to the DOT [Department of Transportation] that was in a language and terminology [which] engineers would better understand. I’d like to think that we got better response from the DOT because of the proper wording and we sounded like we knew what we were talking about.”

“But when it comes to policies and procedures on Capitol Hill, I am not learning one thing from staff, but a dozen things daily.”

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