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In Rep. Adrian Smith’s case, those who can, teach.
The Nebraska Republican turned the old saying on its head this spring after taking a second gig as a George Washington University professor.
In “The Member’s Perspective: Running and Ruling,” Smith and his chief of staff, Jeff Shapiro, offered an inside look into life on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill to 22 students in the college’s Graduate School of Political Management.
The class wasn’t simply a show-and-tell of the two Capitol Hill professors’ personal experiences, however. The syllabus stated that by the end of the course, students would “be aware of what to consider in assessing running for office, how to prioritize their time and resources once elected, and learn how to balance competing areas of influence in order to be successful.”
In assignments, students analyzed incumbent Members who suffered defeat in the 2010 midterms, developed plans for running campaigns and role-played how they would run real-life Congressional districts.
“The feedback we got from their perspective was invaluable,” student John Boyer said. “And Adrian made it to class more often than I thought he was going to. Having people who do this for a living, and having their opinion at hand, was invaluable.”
Smith, who spent four years in education before he was elected to the Nebraska state Senate, said he found balancing the time between serving as a Member and teaching a graduate-level course a worthwhile challenge.
“Working with these students was a great experience, particularly at GWU because of its rich history and tradition,” Smith wrote in an email. “Finding time to teach a class will always be a challenge because of the demands of the Congressional schedule, but this experience was terrific.”
According to Steven Billet, director of the legislative affairs program and associate professor of political management, the university worked with the House Ethics Committee to ensure Smith and Shapiro’s compensation — just a few thousand dollars between them — fulfilled the appropriate requirements.
“We had to go through the whole deal with the Ethics Committee and it didn’t take too long,” he said. “No one’s getting rich teaching, that’s for sure, and he and Jeff are sharing the compensation, which is just a few thousand dollars. Because of the fairly strict rules on this thing, we punched all the cards on this.”
To get their teaching careers off the ground, the Congressman and his chief of staff had to jump through some minor hoops — from figuring out compensation to devising lesson plans, all the while representing Nebraska’s 3rd district — but the end result offered a lucky group of students a rare firsthand look into Congress.
For student David Spanton, an Army Congressional fellow who works in the office of Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the class was a chance to hear directly from a lawmaker.
“When the Congressman spoke, folks were pretty quiet,” he said. “But he would open it up to questions and never give the final answer. He’d just say, ‘This is how I view it from where I sit,’ and then it was absolutely open for questions. It was a very informal dialogue, and it was unbelievable access to a Congressman to ask what you wanted.”
Smith said he and Shapiro designed the course with that interactive aspect in mind.
“The course was discussion-based, and intentionally so because we thought this approach would be best to give the students a better understanding of the influences and pressures on a Member of Congress,” Smith wrote. “We wanted it to be practical, not theoretical.”
From the start, Boyer said his Capitol Hill professors impressed him with their emphasis on maintaining a nonpartisan environment.
“Within the first 10 minutes of the first class, they both said, ‘We’re not here to lecture you on the Republican Party’s ideals or sell you on policy positions. This is intended to be a nonpartisan class. If you ever think it’s not nonpartisan, let us know,’” said Boyer, who is pursuing a master’s degree in legislative affairs. “And they stuck to that far better than a lot of other Members would have. I personally never got any type of feeling they were leaning one way or the other at all.”
Smith and Shapiro’s commitment to their students often went beyond the classroom, Boyer added.
“When class would adjourn, Adrian would stick around and talk to anyone, whether it was stuff related to the reading or someone saying, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a job,’” Boyer said. “Jeff and Adrian have really gone to bat for a couple of people, and they stay in touch with people as well. It’s a very big benefit from taking that class and in getting that kind of access, especially for students that didn’t already have jobs.”
The class, Shapiro said, offered a chance for him to mentor a group of students who are on the fast track to Hill careers.
“One of the most fulfilling things for me was getting to know the students,” he wrote in an email. “Many of them are at the early stages of what I am confident will be successful careers on the Hill. Having the opportunity to sit down with them in my office or over coffee to walk through their professional goals and what I could do to help them was really rewarding for me.”
For students, the class was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’m from a small town in central Illinois — I hadn’t been to D.C. until two-and-a-half years ago. To go from never being in Washington and then two years later, I’m in a class at GW with a Congressman is just unbelievable,” said Spanton, a U.S. Army captain pursuing his master’s degree in legislative affairs. “It’s something I’ll take with me for years.”
Billet said the university hopes to offer the course again.
“God knows I would love to have other sitting Members teaching for us,” he said. “And Congressman Smith has shown everybody how it can be done.”
Like any professor, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) assigned reading to his students at George Washington University. Below are the books on his syllabus.
• “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (2nd Edition),” by John Kingdon, 2002
• “Campaign Bootcamp: Basic Training for Future Leaders,” by Christine Pelosi (daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), 2007
• “Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making,” by Deborah Stone, 1997
• “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide,” by the Congressional Management Foundation, 2008
• “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist,” by Richard Feldman, 2008
• “Reagan’s Revolution,” by Craig Shirley, 2005