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September 30, 2004

Professor Marsh Goes to Washington

Sabbaticals take many forms, but few are so career-influencing as the one just completed by a Pitt-Greensburg psychology professor.

Diane T. Marsh recounted her “grand adventure” during her year-long experience, which could be titled (with apologies to Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart): Professor Marsh goes to Washington.

Marsh served as an American Psychological Association (APA) Congressional Fellow, working as a legislative assistant on the staff of New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman.

“I’ve been an academic for, well, forever it seems,” said Marsh, who has been teaching at UPG since 1970. “In academia, we ordinarily have the leisure time to reflect. This was an entirely different lifestyle,” including 12-hour workdays, plus occasional nights and weekends.

“I can honestly say my days were 7 to 7, working every minute, and it is a fact that congressional staff put in those kinds of hours.”

Over the course of the year, Marsh drafted two major education bills, monitored legislation on related issues, made presentations to outside groups, staffed hearings, met with constituents, lobbyists and other stakeholders and prepared floor statements for Sen. Bingaman.

“You learn to contribute to policy on the fly, typically in the Senate walking along in the halls filling in the senator as he makes his way to the [Senate] floor. You need to take your research and condense it. It is an environment of sound-bites.”

A four-term Democratic senator, Bingaman sits on the health, education, labor and pensions committee, as well as its subcommittee on substance abuse and mental health services.

Marsh said she’d done her homework before applying for the staff job with Bingaman, one of several members of Congress who were hiring APA fellows.

“He was my first choice for a number of reasons,” Marsh said.

“He’s a kind of policy wonk, and a more behind-the-scenes operator. My portfolio included mental health, education, welfare and child welfare. I knew where the action is on issues in the mental health arena.”

Following a one-month orientation last September on congressional and executive branch operations that included presentations on policy-related topics as well as tours of Washington landmarks such as the Pentagon and the Library of Congress, Marsh plunged into her work.

“Although faced with a daunting array of responsibilities, I had access to the exceptional resources available to congressional staff. I also found that my training and experience as a psychologist, researcher, writer and presenter had prepared me well for this arena,” she maintained. “It was a matter of different applications of those skills, but they served me in good stead.”

Marsh used her research and writing skills on a daily basis, moving from the latest and best psychological research, to translating research findings into appropriate policy, to drafting policy documents.

“In addition, my experience as a university teacher and workshop presenter allowed me to respond comfortably to speaking requests,” she said. Among her oral presentations during the fellowship were addressing a welfare group on child support, talking to a consortium of rural education groups about the challenges faced by rural school districts and speaking to a higher education group about teacher quality issues.

“My years as a mental health advocate also served me well,” she said. “I was in regular contact with members of advocacy groups who share my passion for public service. They often recognized in me a kindred spirit – someone who sees public service as a calling and system transformation as a genuine possibility.”

Not that the legislative process is frustration-free, Marsh said. “This Congress is one of the most partisan in the history of Congress. Bi-partisan efforts are few and far between. Being in the minority party, working for a Democrat on issues that matter to me greatly, you learn quickly that the process, the power to set the agenda, favors the majority.”

But, she added that senators as well as staff of both parties on the Senate health committee acted in good faith, making progress possible. Much of the real work takes place behind the scenes, before legislation reaches the committee for open debate, she said. Staff of the Democrats would pass proposals to staff of Republican members who would report back on what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

“On a day-to-day basis, the experience of working with that committee was quite satisfying and made this a very productive year,” she said. “That was partly a function of the issues we were addressing, which have more general support than some issues, and partly, I believe, because of the character and interests of Sen. Bingaman, who deserves high marks.”

(Much more frustrating, Marsh said, was her pre-fellowship experience in July 2002 testifying on mental health parity issues on behalf of the APA before the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. “We were advocating comparable insurance benefits for those with serious mental illness, and the end of discrimination in insurance coverage. This was [the late Sen.] Paul Wellstone’s bill. It met with absolute gridlock on every level. It couldn’t even make to the floor and it’s currently dead in the water.”)

In contrast, the two education bills that Marsh drafted for Bingaman during her fellowship are still alive and kicking.

Bingaman’s “Preparing Students for a High-Tech World Act of 2004” would provide students with opportunities to participate in rigorous career and technical education programs to prepare them for both postsecondary education and high-skill, high-wage employment.

Bingaman also has sponsored the CLASS (Capacity to Learn for All Students and Schools) Act of 2004, which is designed to strengthen the Higher Education Act by expanding the capacity of teachers and schools to increase the quality of instruction. The legislation, drafted by Marsh, would add capacity-building resources such as data systems, academic teaching centers and rural education recruitment and retention programs.

Both bills are expected to come up in the next congressional session, if not this fall, she said.

In connection with drafting the CLASS bill, and as part of the outreach component of the APA fellowship, Marsh and others on Bingaman’s staff spent a week in New Mexico in February. “I met with faculty at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and with experts at the Department of Education in Santa Fe,” she said. “I also presented several workshops to high school students in Las Cruces and Roswell as part of Sen. Bingaman’s Student Leadership Institute. I even managed a quick trip to Taos!”

On the New Mexico trip, Marsh’s clinical experience proved useful in meeting with constituents. “I particularly remember my meetings with a mother from New Mexico whose son has autism and with a Navaho whose brother has profound mental retardation. They shared their personal stories with me, as well as their anguish over the shortcomings of the system,” she said. “My experience meeting with diverse groups was very helpful there, and these meetings informed my work back in Washington.”

Overall, the fellowship provided a wonderful opportunity to spread the fruits of her discipline, Marsh said. “My year in Congress was truly a grand adventure in ‘giving psychology away,’ namely, to use psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. If you think of congressional fellowships, a psychologist wouldn’t ordinarily come to mind. I’ve authored a dozen books in my field, but it was a welcome change to get into policy in depth and up close.”

But it wasn’t all work and no play for the Greensburg professor. The fellowship offered a year in culture-rich Washington, where Marsh had spent time in the late-1960s earning her master’s degree at George Washington University. “I was somewhat familiar with the city, and was able to find an apartment right near the Metro, so I didn’t need a car. We had tickets to the Washington Symphony and I have a sailboat on Chesapeake Bay. It was very enjoyable.”

Marsh worked up to the last minute of the fellowship’s term, which ended Sept. 1, she said.

“There have been some ‘re-entry’ issues, coming back to teaching in Greensburg,” she said. “I’m used to having my syllabi ready months in advance; I guess I’m the anal type in that respect. Now I’ve been scrambling to get ready for my courses.”

The APA fellowship experience undoubtedly will shape her professional career, Marsh said. “Not so much my teaching, but my scholarship and future professional activities. I’m planning to edit a book on public policy problems, drawing on the expertise of psychologists, advocates, lobbyists, think tanks and so forth. I couldn’t do it without my Washington experience.”

Marsh also sees herself as a better-informed public policy advocate as a result of her fellowship. “I may do more consulting, and work with more publications. I’ve already been asked if I would be available to testify before Congress, and I’ve already had calls from contacts I made during my year in Washington. I can see a re-direction of my career to the public policy arena, which is entirely different from what I’m used to. I’m really grateful for the opportunity I had with this fellowship.”

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 3

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