One Day on The Hill

I’m making plans for a September trip. It will include an across-country run on Amtrak, some train rides in the U.K. and France, and one more ride from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA Rail’s flagship train, The Canadian

The first stop will be Washington, DC, for a three-day meeting of the Rail Passengers Association. Two of those days are taken up with a business meeting, election of officers and speeches and seminars by people involved in passenger rail.

But the second of the three days is our Day on the Hill. That’s when we break up into groups and go up onto Capitol Hill and into the House and Senate office buildings to meet with our respective elected officials to tell them what we want for passenger rail in our states or for the country as a whole.

Of course the reality is you rarely get to see the actual Member.  Almost invariably, you find yourself sitting and taking to a “staffer”, who appears to be about 16 years old. He or she sits there diligently taking notes while you do most of the talking.

And then they thank you for coming in, you thank them for seeing you, and you leave.

The whole experience is sobering because you come to realize that every corridor on every floor in each of five huge office buildings is teeming with people . . . and they all want something that will cost money. In fact—here’s how crass the whole thing is—whatever it is you want from your Member of Congress is referred to as your “Ask.”

I do believe if you’re from Hawaii, the experience can be a bit different. Once a week Senator Mazie Hirono personally meets with visiting constituents to “talk story”, an expression in Hawaii meaning to chat or even to gossip. Senator Spark Matsunaga would take visiting constituents to lunch in the Senate dining room. On at least two occasions, I joined then-Congressman Neil Abercrombie for lunch in the House dining room.

Working through the system is time consuming and can be frustrating.It’s not a perfect system. It’s slow and cumbersome and inefficient. But most of the time it works. Most of the time.