McCourtney Institute brings former congressmen to campus

Brynn Boehler
September 15, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Former congressmen Jim Slattery, D-Kan. (1983-1995), and Donald Manzullo, R-Ill. (1993-2013), may come from very different backgrounds, but they share important ideals that they brought to Penn State this week as members of the United States Association for Former Members of Congress (USAFMC). The event was organized by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy in the College of the Liberal Arts.

As a part of USAFMC’s Congress to Campus program, the former congressmen spent two days talking to classes and student-run groups about topics ranging from congressional gridlock and political polarization, to careers in politics, rhetoric and international relations. They also visited one class of high school students at State College Area High School. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the former congressmen attended a Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council meeting to talk to student leaders about the role of the liberal arts in politics. After they gave students information on their own backgrounds as members of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Slattery and Manzullo emphasized that neither came to Congress with inherited money or connections. Each made his own path in the political world through contact with community members and other politicians. For example, Slattery ran for office by going door-to-door in his district and asking people for their vote in person. Though they acknowledged an extremely hostile attitude toward Washington in society, they assured students that they can still make a difference by running for office.

“Don’t accept anybody’s statement that you don’t have a chance,” Manzullo said to encourage students interested in political careers. 

That evening, the two also met with liberal arts students in the Paterno Fellows Program, as well as students in Penn State College Democrats and Penn State College Republicans. The meeting provided students with the opportunity to participate in important dialogue and brought the political sphere much closer to Penn State.  

Upon reflection, both men considered their years in public office to be extremely rewarding. They also expressed concern, however, for the current political climate. Bipartisanship became an underlying theme for both student meetings. As each former congressman had significant political experience, each drew upon his own experiences of cooperation between opposing parties. In reference to working with a democrat to amend the Clean Air Act in 1990, Manzullo said, “We had only three things in common: we were short, we were members of Congress, and we loved our country. And that was enough.” The former congressmen discussed how getting to know each other as people and building relationships can lead members of Congress to come together and accomplish their main job: to pass meaningful legislation. 

Throughout the program, students’ questions were the driving force behind this conversation. The role of honesty in politics was a popular topic of interest. In a question about the use of free speech, Slattery told students to dedicate themselves to “the pursuit of objective truth.” He and Manzullo emphasized maintaining freedom of speech, while keeping the facts of a situation intact. They also discussed a need for dialogue among citizens and politicians alike. “What we really need in this country is not more communication, but more conversation,” Slattery remarked. 

At the end of both meetings, Slattery and Manzullo left students with advice and a parting feeling of hope: for the future of the United States, for their own lives, and for politics as a whole. 

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy promotes rigorous scholarship and practical innovations to advance the democratic process in the United States and abroad. The institute examines the interplay of deliberative, electoral and institutional dynamics. It recognizes that effective deliberation among citizens has the potential to reshape both the character of public opinion and the dynamics of electoral politics, particularly in states and local communities. Likewise, political agendas and institutional processes can shape the ways people frame and discuss issues. The institute pursues this mission, in part, through supporting the work of the Center for Democratic Deliberation and the Center for American Political Responsiveness.

To learn more about the McCourtney Institute, visit http://democracyinstitute.la.psu.edu or email DemocracyInst@psu.edu.

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Last Updated September 18, 2017