Associate professor of political science, former House of Representatives staff member
- By Megan Morley Thomas
As a young staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1980s, Eileen Burgin was fascinated by how members of Congress decided which issues to become actively involved in. It would become a prevalent theme in her academic research, which would shift over time, for one of the same reasons she believes lawmakers change their legislative agendas to support specific causes.
“Based on my committee work in the House and interviews with members of Congress, I found that their own personal experience was one of the major factors affecting what causes they chose to get really involved in,” says Burgin, associate professor of political science. “They may have a family member with an illness that moved them to back medical research or a personal connection they’ve made with people in their district about issues like immigration or gun violence ... Sometimes we forget that they are people first."
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Burgin, whose early research focused on Congress’ decision-making process related to foreign policy, made a significant shift in her own research agenda when her five-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Burgin became interested in the role of the public in determining how their tax dollars were spent on specific illnesses. She even lobbied on Capitol Hill for more biomedical research funding and had her son speak with members of Congress.
“You need to put a face on an issue for people to become passionate and really get behind it,” says Burgin. “If you don’t have someone championing an issue it won’t even get taken up by Congress. Breast cancer wasn’t even discussed on the floor of Congress until women started getting elected.”
Burgin’s most recent work is focused on the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act and the compromises made in Congress to get it passed. Her article “Congress, Health Care Reform, and Reconciliation” in Congress & the Presidency, an interdisciplinary journal of political science and history, explores the role of reconciliation -- a legislative process intended to allow consideration of budgetary matters in the Senate and House -- in the passage of health care reform in the 111th Congress.
“I was trying to make the point that this landmark piece of legislation that people were decrying and saying went through some sleazy process actually went through Congress largely through conventional means,” says Burgin, who teaches a course on Congressional process. “The legislation went through committees in both chambers. And virtually all health care reform that has happened since reconciliation was created has gone through the reconciliation process, including George Bush’s changes to Medicare, COBRA and SCHIP, so I wanted to change that myth.”