As surveyors, we are accustomed to climbing hills … but the hill I climbed this time was unlike any other. On April 14, I arrived at Reagan National Airport in the District of Columbia from Dallas. I was a delegate with the Richardson Chamber of Commerce, and our task was to walk the hill, meet with legislators, and discuss topics relative to our business, region, state and country, then report back to our local leaders on what we had found.
Our delegates included the mayor of Richardson, Paul Voulker, and several members of the Richardson city council, like Bill Sproul, chamber president/CEO, Randy Ford, COO, National Write Your Congressman, Dr. Kathryn Eggleston, president of Richland College, and a few other education and business representatives from the area. This was a great field party of highly educated and experienced professionals. This was a joint effort of the Richardson Chamber of Commerce, National Write Your Congressman and Congressman Pete Sessions.
Navigating Difficult Topography
This hill was different, but it had a lot of the same issues all hills have. It was difficult to navigate and had lots of obstacles. It recalled a set of old field notes establishing the “initial point” for all official surveys of the vast Louisiana Territory in what became Lee, Monroe and Phillips counties in Arkansas. The surveyor described coming upon a “Bastard Hill,” meaning it was no longer in its pure or original form – or it was otherwise unpleasant. I think the same definition could be used here. Navigating Capitol Hill can be difficult, it can be challenging and there are a lot of obstacles. Most of us never even try because it looks so hard and seems to be pointless. However, with the right knowledge, navigator and some courage, even this “Bastard Hill” can be circumnavigated.
On Sunday evening, our group met for dinner with Congressman Sessions and then he personally took us on a late-night tour of the Capitol. The night began with dinner and concluded with a fireside chat in the Congressman’s office adjacent to the Committee on Rules. The discussion was enlightening and informative, not only to what the hot topics of the day were, but how legislation works and what we can do to influence its direction. It was more of a planning session for the days to come. We mapped out our strategies and prepared for the morning’s climb up the hill.
If you haven’t had a conversation in the Capitol with a sitting chairman who’s brutally honest on how things work in Washington, you’ve truly missed out. It’s stimulating and overwhelming at the same time. Chairman Sessions even took us to the floor of the House and spoke to us in detail about the obstacles and decisions made every day in that chamber.
Leaving Base Camp
Monday morning, we were to leave “Base Camp” (our hotel) for a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where discussions included talent pipeline management, healthcare, immigration, apprenticeships and transportation. However, a very informative and educational meeting was held without me; you see, I had broken my toe that morning at our Camp and spent the better part of the morning with a medic (ER) getting my injured toe x-rayed and set back in place. Like all hills we surveyors survey, clearly this one too had its dangers. The doctor wrapped my toe up and sent me on my way, and I was able to meet up with our party before lunch to continue on our journey.
Our guest speaker for lunch was Dr. Walter Bumphus. He is president/CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and also serves on Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses board. He’s an extremely educated and informed man with a real grasp of the college system, and he spoke to us regarding the nation’s 1,300 community college systems. Continuing with lunch, Jeff Finkle, of the International Economic Development Council, spoke to us regarding the $600 million for economic development going into disaster relief. I started seeing a pattern emerge that there are more people than I realized on this hill. They all have their own compass and they all have their own declination – meaning their true north may be different than yours. So be careful who you follow; they may be headed in a different direction.
Finding the Points
Our group continued our journey to the Senate offices on Capitol Hill and arrived at Senator John Cornyn’s office for a meeting with his staff on wide ranging issues. We met with Andrew Mitchell, energy and environmental policy, and Stephen Reynolds, legislative correspondent. The volume of information they discussed was simply amazing from issues overseas to local issues. The young staff all have their “portfolio” and they know it well. They gather facts and information from the folks they meet, mainly lobbyists, but also ordinary folks and constituents like me. They then brief their boss, a congressman or senator, on whatever issues are most important and those aligned with their boss’ priorities.
We continued on down the halls of the Russell Senate Building to Senator Ted Cruz’s office and met with Kathleen Hunker, judiciary, and Sean McLean and Bryan Bashur, commerce, technology, innovation, aviation. Again, a young staff of attorneys, recent graduates, and interns from all over the country, all with their “portfolio” in mind, gathering facts and information to help their bosses.
We ended up back at the Committee on Rules at the end of the day where Congressman Sessions met us. We must have seemed exhausted to him, but he was still full of energy and excited to see us. He invited some of us to sit in the back of the Rules Committee hearing where several congressman were testifying, including Congressman Kevin Brady and legendary Congressman John Lewis. To be in the hearing as the committee asked questions and the witnesses testified was an amazing experience. After the hearing, Congressman Sessions joined us for dinner where we discussed the day’s events, reviewed our notes and prepared for another day on the Hill.
We arrived early to the hill Tuesday morning from our Base Camp. We took a tunnel system to the Senate Visitors Center (SVC) where we attended a joint meeting between the Ft. Worth Chamber of Commerce and our Richardson Chamber of Commerce. Senator John Cornyn was our speaker. He addressed the group on a number of topics and took some questions. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask the senator a question that affects me and my business; a rare opportunity for a “Veteran-Owned Small Business” owner to speak directly to a sitting senator. He was unaware of the problem I explained and he directed his staff to work with me to find a solution. I was starting to understand this hill and how it works – if you’re able to express your concern, problem, or question in a concise manner, they will listen and try to help you.
We then left to go to the House offices. This trip included an underground tram and lots of security checkpoints along the way. My broken toe was beginning to slow me down and I was always bringing up the rear. One thing I noticed on this hill: people really walk with a purpose. It’s a big place with lots of passages. Thank goodness for those checkpoints though, as they allowed me to catch up. We finally arrived in our meeting room in the Rayburn House Office Building where Congressman Sessions scheduled several representatives to come speak to us. We began with Chairman Virginia Fox, house committee on education and workforce. I was able to sit next to the chairman as we discussed education and a bill she has introduced called the Prosper Act. What an amazing woman, and she is passionate and articulate.
Next was Congressman Bradley Byrne on the house committee on education and the workforce, then Congressman Will Hurd, house committee on oversight and government reform. One by one, these congressman were piecing together an understanding of all the issues and it was becoming clearer why each congressman has a “portfolio.” How could one person ever understand everything going on?
Continuing with the speakers was Chairman Greg Walden, telecommunications, energy, EPA, FDA (biggest issue: opioids epidemic). More and more obstacles and very unpleasant topics were needing solutions. Then Chairman Kevin Brady, house ways and means. This meeting was one of my favorite meetings, as not only is Chairman Brady extremely knowledgeable, but he was engaging and asked our opinions. He asked specifically what I would do about education and the labor/education issues facing me as a small business owner. This was an opportunity of a lifetime to sit next to such an influential congressman who truly cared about my opinion. I answered him to the best of my ability and hoped that I was at least coherent. I realized how some of my problems may not seem so big to him, but he listened anyway.
Following in the Footsteps
We regrouped at our Base Camp before dinner, compared notes from the day, and discussed all the challenges we faced and the ones our representatives face each day. I think we were all a bit humbled by the enormity of it all. We had a wonderful group dinner and then were taken by bus to the National Mall. It was an extremely cold evening in the district and most of us weren’t all that prepared; some were in sport coats and some in light sweaters. Just like our days on other hills, the weather is not always predictable and we were caught in the elements. However, with our guide, we persevered and were able to walk the WWII Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, and my favorite, the Lincoln Memorial. It dawned on me as my wife and I stood in front of President Lincoln, sitting stoically with his square toed boots, that he, along with President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson, were all surveyors too. They also had climbed the same hill and they fought for that hill – and President Lincoln died on that hill at Fords Theater.
We closed out the trip on Wednesday morning with a trip back to Senator Ted Cruz’s office in the Russell Senate Building. We met with his legislative council and discussed a wide range of topics. When Senator Cruz arrived, he took his place at the head of the table and began a dialogue with the group about his goals and his efforts. I was able to voice my concern regarding the veteran’s issue, and he was more than engaged and interested in my problem. He asked a member of his staff to gather more information and work with me to find a solution to bring back to him.
As surveyors, we often find ourselves working in some extreme conditions with only a compass to find our direction, trying to survey unfamiliar lands. Fortunately, surveyors are instructed to follow in the footsteps of the original surveyor. Knowing that Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln left an amazing trail to follow for the men and women that have or will traverse this hill made this the most rewarding and educational experience in my lifetime.
My three days on Capitol Hill were an eye-opening experience. Although we had some obstacles, we found our way around them; we had some injuries (we will heal); and we met with folks that we didn’t agree with, but we found compromise still.
Surveyors write reports based on facts we discover, we prepare maps about hills we’ve climbed and valleys we’ve crossed. This report is only about a short three days and the incredible experience of meeting the folks that remain on the hill every day doing the nation’s business. It concludes with the fact that this surveyor started up a hill that seemed to be a “Bastard Hill,” but ended up being surprisingly more pleasant than expected.
I highly recommend a trip up this hill, so you can witness for yourself the amazing men and women. They may not always succeed, but at least they get up each morning, put on their boots, climb that hill and try.