Spring 2006 Newsletter

 

 

From the Director...

Dear Fellow Citizens:

The Center is now in its seventh year of working to teach Americans about Congress' vital role in our democracy, and to spur young people and adults to understand their obligations as citizens and take an active part in the governing of our nation.

This edition of the Center's newsletter provides highlights of how we are working with a variety of groups and using an array of tools to encourage civic education and citizen participation. Our recent efforts include outreach programs and educational resources aimed at teachers, students, journalists, minority groups, scholars and others.

In all our projects and programs at the Center, we give Americans a balanced, realistic view of Congress, acknowledging its imperfections but emphasizing the Founders' vision that Congress should be the branch of government most responsive to the people's needs and aspirations.

I invite you to examine our resources and join in our effort to educate Americans about our institutions of government, especially Congress and the important role that it plays in our lives.

With warm regards,
Lee H. Hamilton, Director

 

In this newsletter...

Center Will Survey Public Attitudes on Congress During Pivotal 2006 Midterm Election Cycle

American Civic Education Teacher Awards To Honor Outstanding Instructors in Civics and Government

Center Launches "Democracy Kids" Website

Washington Seminar Help Journalists Inform Citizens About the Federal Budget Process

Center's "Adventures of the American Mind" Project Will Expand Use of Library of Congress Resources

Center Seeks To Spur Civic Participation by Minorities

Center Uses Multiple Media Tools to Reach Citizens

News Notes

 

Center Will Survey Public Attitudes on Congress During Pivotal 2006 Midterm Election Cycle

The Center on Congress will be the main sponsor of a joint effort with researchers from several other prominent institutions to conduct a national public opinion study during the 2006 congressional election. The study will focus on the public's knowledge and evaluation of Congress as well as citizen involvement in this year's election.

Researchers from the University of California at Davis, the University of California at San Diego, the Ohio State University and the University of Illinois will partner with the Center on Congress to support and carry out the study. "We are pleased to be joining with these universities in sustaining the important work of examining how the American public size up the effectiveness and responsiveness of Congress," said Center Director Lee Hamilton.

The study will involve a national telephone survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University. The survey will employ a national representative sample of American adults, with an oversampling of competitive House districts.

"Our priority at the Center on Congress is making representative democracy work better," said Hamilton. "Data from the congressional election surveys are crucial in helping us understand how to foster a closer relationship between citizens and their representatives." The Center sponsored a similar study of the 2004 congressional election.

Since 1952 the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan has been conducting a national survey during each presidential and congressional election. These national election studies have been funded mainly by the National Science Foundation. However, NSF will not fund a 2006 congressional election study.

"It is especially important that there be alternative sponsorship to support a study of the upcoming election," said Edward G. Carmines, Director of Research for the Center on Congress. The 2006 elections are shaping up to be the most important midterm elections since 1994. The willingness of the Center and our academic partners to step in and continue a midterm survey will be of immeasurable intellectual and practical importance."

The Center conducts its own Survey on Congress to examine how citizens learn about Congress and gauge its performance. Findings from the Center's most recent survey were released in 2005. This survey work by the Center will continue in odd-numbered years and serve as a complement to the broader congressional election surveys in even-numbered years.

 

American Civic Education Teacher Awards To Honor Outstanding Instructors in Civics and Government

To recognize teachers who are doing exemplary work in preparing young people to become informed and engaged citizens, the Center on Congress is partnering with the Center for Civic Education and the National Education Association to establish the American Civic Education Teacher Awards (ACETA).

The Awards will be given annually to elementary and secondary teachers of civics, government and related fields who have demonstrated special expertise and dynamism in motivating students to learn about the Constitution, Congress, and public policy.

"We all remember with admiration and respect those teachers who made significant and lasting contributions to our education. These are the types of teachers who will be selected for the ACETA," said Center Director Lee Hamilton.

Each year the ACETA program will select and showcase three teachers whose students represent the diversity of the American public and private school systems. Applicants must be full-time classroom teachers of grades K-12. The honored teachers will travel twice to Washington, D.C., to attend special activities in connection with the ACETA. Travel and lodging expenses for the teachers will be provided by the sponsoring organizations.

April 15 is the application deadline for the 2006 Awards. There is no fee to apply. In addition to a two-page "self-portrait" essay, applicants must submit three letters of recommendation — two from teaching or professional colleagues and one from their school principal.

In September, the ACETA winners will participate in a three-day educational program in the nation's capital that will involve the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Historical Office of the U.S. Senate, and will include attending floor sessions and committee hearings in Congress, meeting members of Congress and other key officials, and visiting sites such as the National Archives and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The awardees will be recognized at a special program during the Congressional Conference on Civic Education, to be held Nov. 17-20 in Washington.

"Civic education is essential to the preservation and improvement of representative democracy," said Hamilton. "The ACETA program will recognize the 'best of the best' in American civic education, and call public attention to the fact that many teachers across the nation are doing an excellent job molding the civic character of young people and training them to assume the obligations of citizenship."

 

Center Launches "Democracy Kids" Website

The Center on Congress is raising the curtain on its newest online teaching tool, a website called "Democracy Kids" that aims to get students in the 4th through 6th grades interested in Congress and the basic concepts of representative democracy. View it at http://www.democracykids.org.

"Democracy Kids" is a visually lively site that presents information on Congress and civics through a variety of games, puzzles and other activities that are designed to entertain students as they learn.

The site tells students that it aims "to get you thinking a little bit about how you can help make people's lives better by knowing what's going on, and by getting involved."

Features of the site include crossword puzzles highlighting key concepts of democracy and government, a "Tour of the Town" that shows how government affects all our lives, and a "Being Involved" survey that encourages students and parents to talk about civic engagement.

The Center invites educators' feedback about "Democracy Kids" and is continuing to add new elements to the site.

The Center is known for its innovative use of internet-based simulations and other e-learning tools that explain Congress to students in a dynamic way.

The Center's primary website, http://www.centeroncongress.org/, features ten interactive modules, including "The Many Roles of a Member of Congress," "Public Criticisms of Congress," "How a Member Decides to Vote," and "Getting Involved." To use these and other titles, go into the "Learn About Congress" section on the Center website and click on "E-learning modules."

 

Center Hosts Washington Seminar to Help Journalists Inform Citizens About the Federal Budget Process

To encourage the media to pay more attention to the federal budget's impact on every American, the Center on Congress brought together prominent experts to explain the complicated budget process to journalists, and to give reporters tips on producing stories that will help citizens see how spending and taxing decisions in Washington, D.C., affect local communities.

"Our representative democracy cannot function well unless Americans understand what's happening in Washington with their money," said Center Director Lee Hamilton. "The media have a special responsibility to expose and explain the budget process and other workings of government to a general audience. Good journalism is at the heart of making democracy work. It can educate the people, and help them make better-informed and more discerning judgments."

The Center partnered with the National Press Foundation and the Regional Reporters Association to host a half-day seminar, "Covering the Federal Budget," in Washington on Jan. 23. The seminar drew a capacity crowd of journalists, and to share the information with a broader audience, the Center has posted video of the seminar presentations and Q&A sessions on its website,http://www.centeroncongress.org/about/activity_update_cfb.php.

The online "webinar" is divided into four segments:

In Part One, Hamilton opened the seminar with an admonition that "the legislative branch should play a more active role in shaping the budget, rather than ceding so much influence to the executive branch." He said "the Founders would be flabbergasted with the way we operate today. Mindful of "taxation without representation," they were quite explicit in giving Congress, rather than the President, the authority to tax and spend." Now, Hamilton said, "We have become accustomed to the President laying out the agenda for how the federal government ought to raise and spend money."

In Part Two, Nolan Walters, Director of Programs for the National Press Foundation and seminar moderator, introduced presentations by two veteran insiders of the budget process on Capitol Hill, Joseph Minarik and Keith Kennedy. Minarik is Senior VP and Director of Research at the Committee for Economic Development, and he is a former top staffer with the House Budget Committee and the Office of Management and Budget. Kennedy is Staff Director for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Part Three featured a presentation by and audience Q & A with David Rogers, staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau and probably the media's foremost expert in covering the budget.

Part Four focused on helping reporters get a local angle on the national budget story. Speakers were Samantha Young, President of the Regional Reporters Association and a reporter with Stephens Media; Michael Bird, Senior Federal Affairs Counsel of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and Alysoun McLaughlin, Associate Legislative Director with the National Association of Counties.

The budget seminar is part of the Center's continuing effort to reach out to journalists. In April 2005 in Indianapolis, the Center brought together reporters and editors from around Indiana for a seminar on how to improve the quality of local media coverage of Congress. The National Press Foundation also collaborated with the Center on that seminar.

Also, newly added to the Center's website are video excerpts from two television programs on "The Media and Congress" that the Center produced in conjunction with the Close Up Foundation and C-SPAN.

In these programs, leading journalists and academics appear before audiences of students for a lively discussion of topics including: how the media cover Congress; the influence of C-SPAN and the Internet on the operations of Congress and public perceptions of the institution; media objectivity; and the media's crucial role in helping citizens sustain representative democracy.

Panelists for the first program were Ron Elving of National Public Radio, Jackie Calmes of the Wall Street Journal and Center Director Lee Hamilton. The second program featured Paul Kane of Roll Call newspaper; former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter, now a professor at the University of Delaware; and Furman University professor Danielle Vinson, author of the book Local Media Coverage of Congress and its Members.

To view the video excerpts of their comments, go into the "Learn About Congress" section on the Center website and click on "Congress and the Media."

 

Center's "Adventure of the American Mind" Project Will Expand Use of Library of Congress Resources

Development work is proceeding at a rapid clip in a partnership between the Center on Congress and the Library of Congress to promote classroom use of the Library's vast resources available on the Internet.

Through its "American Memory" program, the Library has put online some 10 million items on American history and culture. The eclectic trove includes resources such as records of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, selections from the papers of congressional giants such as Calhoun and Webster, political cartoons and much more on Congress, politics and law. (See http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/)

To help teachers use these historical resources in the classroom, the Library has developed the Adventure of the American Mind project, which involves more than two dozen institutions across the country. The Center is now bringing its online civic education expertise into the Adventures of the American Mind effort. We are developing and field-testing new e-learning modules on Congress that incorporate material from the Library's American Memory program. The Center is blending information on how Congress works with specific Library resources in a visually engaging, interactive, easy-to-use format that will help teachers make the subject matter "come alive" for their students.

In field-testing of the Center's new AAM resources with teachers and curriculum coordinators, response has been very positive. "This is a great opportunity to use the Library's rich and varied storehouse of information with our Center's own e-learning content to create a unique resource that teachers can use to engage students in civics,"said Center Director Lee Hamilton.

Watch for an official "virtual groundbreaking" of this exciting new educational venture.

 

Center Seeks to Spur Civic Participation by Minorities

Broadening our efforts to increase civic participation among minorities, the Center on Congress has produced two television programs on "Minority Civic Engagement" in conjunction with the Close Up Foundation and C-SPAN.

These programs brought prominent leaders before audiences of high school students to discuss strategies for getting more minority youth interested in the work of Congress and government generally.

Panelists for the first television program were Reg Weaver, President of the National Education Association; Janet Murguia, President of the National Council of La Raza; and Paul Brathwaite, Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The second program featured Professor Mark Lopez, from the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and David Harrington, a member of the Prince George's County (Md.) Council who is involved in a program at the University of Maryland that works with minority youth to develop their potential for leadership in government and elsewhere.

"It is of utmost importance that we inspire all Americans, and especially those in minority groups, to become full partners in our system of representative democracy," said Center Director Lee Hamilton. He praised the guests on the two television programs as "wonderful role models, dedicated to the cause of inspiring young people to become active and informed citizens."

The Center will use excerpts from the two programs for a web-based learning module exploring minority civic engagement.

Since 2001, the Center has teamed with Close Up and C-SPAN to produce a number of television programs featuring members of Congress, state legislators, journalists, academic experts and other civic leaders as they engage in Q&A sessions with selected high school and college students.

Work is proceeding on another facet of the Center's campaign to reach out to minorities: a Spanish-language website with interactive, multi-media content that will help Hispanics and Latinos learn more about Congress and the importance of civic participation. The Center's development of this Web-based learning tool is funded by a grant from the SBC Foundation. The new website, slated to debut later this year, will complement the Center's existing English-language online educational resources.

 

Center Uses Multiple Media Tools to Reach Citizens

The Center on Congress continues to add new elements to the portfolio of media tools it employs to teach Americans about Congress and encourage citizen participation in the political process.

Center Director Lee Hamilton and Ronald A. Sarasin, President of the United States Capitol Historical Society, taped a public service announcement for television that urges Americans to take an active role in keeping our representative democracy strong. That's also the message of another PSA, produced by the Center in both Spanish and English, featuring Janet Murguia, President of the National Council of La Raza.

The PSAs reflect the Center's desire to "encourage people to become more civically engaged — in everything from helping at the polls on election day to working to solve a local community problem — because people who are engaged are less cynical and distrustful of government and more likely to become the active citizens that our system of government needs," says Hamilton.

In conjunction with Indiana University Radio, the Center has released a CD with 26 "Congressional Moments" — two-minute recordings, each exploring a specific way in which the work of Congress has made a difference in people's lives. Another 13 "Moments" are planned, and there will also be Spanish-language versions of the programs. To hear the spots, go into the "Learn About Congress" section on the Center website and click on "Congressional Moment Radio Series."

In cooperation with Indiana University Television and Flashback Productions of Boulder, CO, the Center also offers teachers a series of 20 "Facts of Congress" videos. These one-minute segments, aimed at middle school students, but also appropriate for other age groups, deal with basic concepts and terms of representative government, such as "compromise," "filibuster," and "checks and balances." To see these videos, go into the "Learn About Congress" section on the Center website and click on "Facts of Congress Television Segments."

Hamilton has stepped up the frequency of his commentaries on Congress and civic affairs and now turns out a new column every two weeks. These pieces are distributed to newspapers nationally and are posted on the Center's website and on a weblog (http://centeroncongress.org/center-blog). Audio versions of the commentaries are distributed to radio stations nationally and are available via podcast. To hear them, search in the iTunes podcasts section under the "Politics" category for "Lee Hamilton Comments on Congress." There is no charge to download the iTunes software or to hear Hamilton's podcasts.

"Every day we see how hard it is to build consensus to solve problems in our large and diverse nation," said Hamilton. "I invite everyone to read my columns, listen to the podcasts, and give me feedback about how politicians inside the Beltway and citizens in the heartland can promote rational discourse, fair dealing and tolerance of different views. That's what we need in order to bring Americans together to advance our shared ideals."

 

News Notes

Freedom Award: At a ceremony on Capitol Hill in November, the United States Capitol Historical Society gave Center Director Lee Hamilton its 2005 Freedom Award. The Society created this award to recognize and honor individuals and organizations that have advanced greater public understanding and appreciation for freedom as represented by the U.S. Capitol and Congress.

In his remarks at the award ceremony, Hamilton said, "For those of us connected to the Congress and the Capitol, there is little that is more important to know than the history of that magnificent building and the men and women who have passed through there. As Jefferson said, the U.S. Capitol is a 'temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people.' By educating all of us about this institution, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society acts as a keeper of the flame for this temple. I salute you for that."

How Congress Works: Hamilton's highly praised book, How Congress Works and Why You Should Care, explains in non-technical terms how Congress works, how it impacts people's lives, and why citizen engagement is important. It has been described as "an owner's manual for citizens interested in their Congress." To order the book, contact Indiana University Press at (800) 842-6796 or http://iupress.indiana.edu.

Understanding Congress: The Center developed and co-published Understanding Congress: A Citizen's Guide, a booklet that explains the concept of representative democracy, how Congress functions, and how Americans can participate in civic life. To order copies of the booklet for distribution to classes, civic organizations and other groups, contact the Center.

Grateful for Support: The Center expresses its appreciation to the Anderson Foundation and to AARP for their generous support of our educational mission.