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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse with members of Pi Sigma
Alpha, the political science honor society.

​During Visit to Campus, U.S. Sen. Whitehouse Chats with Political Science Students

It’s not every Friday night that a political science major gets to eat hors d’oeuvres and talk politics with a United States senator.  

That’s what Amanda Nelen ’13 (Wilbraham, Mass.) and fellow students did when the Department of Political Science invited U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to speak at Providence College about “An Effective Congress for the 21st Century.”

Before Whitehouse’s presentation in the Smith Center for the Arts, faculty and students talked informally with him at a reception in the Bowab Theatre.

Among the students meeting Whitehouse were representatives of the groups that sponsored his visit, including College Democrats, College Republicans, and Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society, of which Nelen is president.

“We talked with him about our time on the Hill, because most of us have been interns in Washington,” said Nelen. “We compared stories about constituent services and how everyone should have a chance to have that perspective.”

Others stopped by, too. Abobomi Docanto ’14 (Dorchester, Mass.), a political science major, said he wanted to hear the lecture because “I’m really interested in hearing what (Whitehouse) has to say about an effective Congress.”

Whitehouse was welcomed at the reception by College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80.

“Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, none of us can be happy with the functioning of Congress,” said Father Shanley. “I have great respect for the senator as a person and especially for the office he holds. He’s my senator.”

A "dysfunctional" Congress

Whitehouse, who was elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving as Rhode Island attorney general, U.S. attorney, and the state’s director of business regulation, spoke in the Ryan Concert Hall after an introduction by Dr. Anthony D. Affigne, professor of political science.

Affigne said Whitehouse, who has a 90 percent liberal rating, has followed in the tradition of past Rhode Island senators — John O. Pastore, Claiborne Pell, and John H. Chafee — in demonstrating “partisan loyalty tempered by practicality.”

Whitehouse said the government is its citizens, the notion of a class of “takers” is “constitutional nonsense,” and the American middle-class was made possible by government. Congress is seen as “partisan, divided, dysfunctional,” and “Democrats are not blameless” for that, he said.

But the Senate has a strong bipartisan record, and recent changes to the Senate rules should improve matters, Whitehouse said.

In the House of Representatives, the situation is worse because of the “Hastert rule,” named for its creator, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Under the rule, the House speaker does not bring a bill up for a vote unless it has the support of a majority of his party — the so-called “majority of the majority.” The support of the House as a whole does not matter.

The fiscal cliff legislation and Hurricane Sandy relief bill were approved by the House when Speaker John Boehner suspended the Hastert rule, Whitehouse said. But the rule prevented a vote on the highway bill and the farm bill.

“Ditch the Hastert rule, at least for bills that have passed the Senate in bipartisan fashion,” said Whitehouse.

Whitehouse said the government needs to follow the advice of hockey great Wayne Gretzky and “skate to where the puck is going to be.” Issues in the future will be cyber security, health care, and climate change, he said.

Taking questions from students

Facilitated by Dr. Mark S. Hyde, professor of political science, and Dr. Jeffrey D. Pugh, assistant professor of political science, Whitehouse answered questions about the international disabilities treaty, whether the economy can recover from the recession, and his own partisan voting record.

Sarah De La Cerda, a student at the University of Rhode Island, asked Whitehouse whether such a significant issue as health care reform deserved a full hearing before the House and Senate before becoming law.

“I think we made the right decision,” Whitehouse said, adding that Congress could have passed the legislation earlier and moved on to creating jobs.   

Edward Brady ’13 (Tarrytown, N.Y.), a member of the College Republicans, asked Whitehouse whether the Senate will pass a budget this year. Whitehouse told him he is already at work on the matter.

“I thought he was very good,” Brady said afterward. “He handled the questions very well.”

Vicki-Ann Downing

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