- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Twenty-seven-year old Aaron Schock is a bit of an anomaly among his fellow incoming freshman members of the House of Representatives. As the soon-to-be youngest member of that body, he looks fresh-faced and boyish compared to his more wizened colleagues.

But here on the campus of Harvard University, he blends in better than his peers, mostly middle-aged politicians, who trekked to suburban Boston last week to pick the brains of the country´s most elite policy wonks.

Mr. Schock, an Illinois Republican, is one of 40 newly elected representatives who took part in what has become a rite of passage every two years as congressional seats change hands. After their win and before their January swearing in, the victors head to Harvard for a crash course in policymaking. Their agenda is as ambitious as it is broad: understanding the nation´s most pressing policy problems and sorting through recommendations on how to fix them.

Over the past 18 congressional sessions, about 600 lawmakers have been tutored at Harvard by high-powered professors and other policy experts. This year´s conference

featured panels on Iraq and Afghanistan, health care policy, intelligence reform and clean energy.

No back-to-school experience is complete without field trips, so in between thick-and-heavy policy panels, the members attended events such as a tour of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and breakfast with students from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

They also heard from more seasoned soon-to-be colleagues about how to survive political gaming on Capitol Hill, be it maneuvering through the appropriations process or asserting themselves as greenhorns.

“It´s been fantastic, a good cross section of the issues,” said Mr. Schock, who also said the best thing from the conference was an introduction to policy experts to tap later. “Obviously, we´re not getting legislation passed, but it´s a very similar dissection of the issues as we´d see in committee.”

Not all sessions garnered rapt attention from these freshmen, however. During a panel on understanding the economic crisis, new members were fidgeting - some checking BlackBerrys and cell phones and reading newspapers. A few got up repeatedly to take phone calls.

The class looked eerily similar to a committee hearing on Capitol Hill, where distracted members - those who decide to show up - bustle in and out for votes, shuffle papers and confer with staffers.

But perhaps the new members couldn´t be blamed entirely, at least for this session featuring such a glum subject. The four professors leading the discussion - three economists and a lawyer - attempted to explain to lawmakers what caused the current economic meltdown.

“Nobody thoroughly understands the economic crisis,” said Jeffrey Frankel, an economics professor who pinned the recession on problems including underestimated financial risks and households saving too little and borrowing too much. Mr. Frankel said the recession is likely to continue until mid-2009.

Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw said the housing crisis was caused in part by financial institutions being caught off guard by a dramatic 20 percent drop in housing prices. However, he said, things will get better and will not bottom out as in the stock market crash of 1929.

“I´m not forecasting another Great Depression, but take that with a very large grain of salt,” Mr. Mankiw said, noting that Depression-era economists were unable to forecast Black Thursday.

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