By Evan Bourtis
Fisher students had the opportunity to interact with two former members of Congress on March 13 and 14. Congressman Larry LaRocco (D) from Idaho and Tom Petri (R) from Wisconsin answered students’ questions and talked about their experiences in government in the form of seven discussion sessions hosted by classes.
LaRocco and Petri came to Fisher for the national “Congress to Campus” program, where a former democrat and republican representative visit a campus to teach students about how the legislative process works. The congressmen lead the sessions from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday in the Wilson Formal. Then 9:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. on Thursday in the Golisano Gateway. Political science professor Kathleen Donovan and Maya Temperley, director of Office of Sponsored Programs, organized their visit to campus.
According to Petri, who served in Congress for 36 years, from the Carter administration to the Obama administration, he hopes students learn a lot from hearing about his experiences. “I think there’s some advantage in not just reading about Congress, but having a chance to talk to a real congress member,” Petri said. “We are not here as partisan creatures trying to score points. We’re more interested in getting students to understand Congress and give them some content as to the issues Congress members face as they wrestle with the current issues of the day.”
LaRocco, who served under Presidents H.W. Bush and Clinton, said that he was impressed at the in-depth discussions he had with students at the event. These discussions included questions on current political divisions, income inequality, climate change, and unethical use of money in politics. “Those questions haven’t come from us, but from students, and challenging us to add some context on how the decisions that are being made affect those issues,” he added.
LaRocco was also impressed with the discussions he and Petri had about the media’s role politics. “We discussed the role of media and social media in today’s world and how that makes decision making by American voters difficult. Because there’s been a tendency of people to gravitate towards media sources that validate their thinking,” he said.
One of the sessions that the congressmen spoke at involved discussing rhetorical strategies, debate, and showing respect in Congress, which was hosted by the English class Rhetorical Theory. At the session, senior Emily Scoma asked about the importance of Congress members showing respect for opposing parties and for the way the House of Representatives runs. Petri responded with a story of someone who stepped across the aisle to work on a compromise for an issue they disagreed on.
“Something that I learned it that it [bipartisanship] does exist and it can be through respect and those personal relationships. And that can be done across the aisle and across parties while still sticking to what you believe in,” Scoma said.
Both congressmen also talked about the lack of ability to compromise for some current politicians but explained that there are still many members of Congress who are willing to work with an opposing party. One thing LaRocco hopes students learn from attending the discussions is that creating legislation involves compromise. “If there’s a problem to be solved, generally, it has to be solved through compromise. And what we’ve found is that there are factions in Congress now that don’t understand that politics is all about compromise,” he explained.
Senior Tessa Sulimowicz also asked a question, relating to if telling stories was an effective way to encourage people to see one’s perspective on an issue. Both politicians explained how telling storytelling helped them become an elected official and voice their ideas. “I was really excited to ask about storytelling since I feel like stories have an immense effect on persuasion and just getting people to relate to you and to other people. And as a politician, I think that’s very important, as they mentioned,” she explained.
One other topic discussed was the Web of Relationships, which is the idea that even if a speaker makes a good argument if he or she doesn’t have a good relationship with the peers, the argument will fall through. Junior Christina Reich liked hearing about how building positive relationships have helped the politicians. “I liked the questions people were asking about the Web of Relationships because I talked about that in a recent essay,” she said.