Retired Staffer Returns to Hill on a Mission

Posted July 25, 2007 at 5:34pm

Here’s the story of a man who joined the Peace Corps, worked on Capitol Hill for 40 years, rejoined the Peace Corps and returned to the Hill to testify in favor of legislation he helped draft … about the Peace Corps.

“It’s all come full circle,” Chuck Ludlam, the man in question, has said again and again. “This is a very unusual situation.”

Ludlam, a longtime Washington, D.C., lobbyist and Hill staffer, most recently in the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), retired from political life two years ago. Instead of retreating to the typical beach house, however, he and his wife, Paula Hirschoff, also a former Peace Corps volunteer, traveled to Senegal to do two more years of service, 40 years after their first stints.

“Having been a Peace Corps volunteer is the most revealing thing you can say about [me],” Ludlam said. “The [first] experience changed how I approached my career and gave me the perspective to see that we have the fairest political system in the world. I’ve never been cynical or burned out. I’ve always loved my job.”

Currently 22 months into their stay, Ludlam and Hirschoff arranged for a five-day leave of absence this week to participate in Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics Affairs. The bill, referred to as the Peace Corps Volunteer Empowerment Act, aims to enact solid mechanisms to ensure that volunteers are more adequately listened to and respected.

“It was a very free-wheeling time back in the ’60s when we first joined the Peace Corps,” Ludlam explained. “Today it’s run more like a government bureaucracy … the level of support for volunteers is not what we expected or remembered.

“Everything’s more controlled now,” Hirschoff added. “More rules, more reports, lots of condescension … it’s not a respectful way to work with volunteers … it’s demoralizing.”

Their road to becoming involved with this legislation is twofold. First, it stemmed from the stark contrast between this experience and the one decades earlier, which they say has been upsetting and frustrating for them. Second, the office of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a former Peace Corps volunteer, solicited them for their input.

A member of Dodd’s staff said the bill was conceived after hearing a series of similar concerns and recommendations from Peace Corps volunteers, past and present: “When we travel internationally, we always try to meet with Peace Corps volunteers,” the staffer said. “I have e-mail contact with volunteers, and they know Dodd’s office is the place to go because he’s so passionate about the Peace Corps.”

In a meeting on Tuesday, Ludlam and Hirschoff said they weren’t nervous about the hearing even though they had no idea what to expect, having just gotten in from Senegal and not knowing the content of other witnesses’ testimony. On Wednesday, they seemed just as collected as they took their seats in the Dirksen hearing room, wearing vibrant Senegalese clothing in purples and blues.

“We’re volunteers, and these are the clothes we wear to important events in Senegal,” said Ludlam. “It wouldn’t make sense to wear a suit; Peace Corps volunteers don’t wear suits!”

Attitudes toward the bill differed from witness to witness. Most testimonies were generally positive about the preliminary legislation, and those who had reservations stated them accordingly.

The most adamant critic was Peace Corps Director Ronald Tschetter. He expressed his opposition to the bill, not for its overall mission but because the provisions would “create unforeseen administrative burdens and consequences; raise significant safety and security concerns; and would be costly for the Peace Corps to implement.”

In a question-and-answer session with Dodd, subcommittee ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Tschetter also insisted he was unaware of strained dynamics between volunteers and management and that the Peace Corps already was working independently to address many of the issues the bill raises.

Ludlam and Hirschoff, from their front-row seats, took notes and kept their expressions neutral throughout his testimony. Ludlam did, however, make an addition to his oral testimony later on to respond to Tschetter’s criticisms: “We are sad to hear this, but what’s good is that this attitude is consistent with what we just described [about the Peace Corps management].”

Close to three hours later, Ludlam and Hirschoff were mobbed by old friends from their former D.C. lives; in their Senegalese clothes, they seemed like celebrities as they posed for pictures, shook hands and gave hugs. Ludlam, in between exchanging pleasantries and speaking with his 92-year-old father who traveled from California to see the testimony, said simply that “all the issues [the opposition] raised are legitimate issues … the hearing was totally routine.”

Hirschoff added, “I think we’re going to see some really great legislation come out of this.”

The two returned Peace Corps volunteers — RPCVs, as Ludlam and Hirschoff refer to themselves — were whisked from the Hill by their friends. Participating in the legislation, Ludlam had said earlier, was totally unexpected; when he retired, he’d thought he was leaving politics behind forever.

“Last week I was planting 500 trees and Paula was making porridge for malnourished children, and now we’re here!” he said. “It’s very confusing.”

Ludlam insists he still has no intention of returning to his former career and that this was simply an occasion in which not participating was not an option.

“I have a great love and affection for the Peace Corps. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t,” he said. “It’s really a privilege to be here to testify, and very emotional for us … it’s like we’re bringing all of the other volunteers with us.”