Capitol Hill Report: Personal Experiences Can Shape Legislation

July 19, 2010


Personal Experiences

Joe Gagen, the legislative trainer who works with Academy members at the Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum, says many things can influence a legislator's votes: ideology, political party, friends, anecdotes, etc. But one thing can override every other consideration and become the number one determiner…a personal experience.

Congressman Perlmutter

If you have followed AAN advocacy, you know that Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) is a champion for neurology. Perlmutter, in his second term representing a suburban Denver district, has a daughter in her mid 20s who has epilepsy.

Perlmutter was helpful in 110th Congress when the Academy brought to him a suggestion to create Epilepsy Centers of Excellence at the Veterans Administration to care for veterans who are sure to develop epilepsy as a result of TBI. This legislation passed in 2008 and the ECoEs are being formed at four different sites.

Recently, Perlmutter sent a letter on behalf of neurology to MedPAC which originally proposed the primary care bonus in 2009. In his letter, Perlmutter agreed that MedPAC's recommendation to boost primary care is good, but asked MedPAC to consider patients like his daughter, who routinely see a neurologist as their principal care physician.

For Perlmutter, a personal experience has had a profound impact on where he has focused his efforts as a member of Congress. But it hasn't stopped there.

Congressman Kagen

Last week I met Congressman Steve Kagen (D-WI). Kagen is an ENT who represents the Green Bay area. I told him about the issue of neurology being omitted from health care reform, and he immediately showed a great interest in helping us raise awareness for the issue. First, he brought it up at a meeting he had with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. We aren't sure if we can get this fixed administratively, but if anyone can do it, it is Sebelius. Kagen also told me that he has started to talk individually with members throughout the House to try to gain more support.

So why is Congressman Kagen so helpful?  

Congressman Braley

Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) is a member of the House Energy & Commerce (E&C) Health Subcommittee. I attended an event for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee where I talked with Braley, who I have met a couple of times. We again talked about neurology, and it was clear that since our last conversation that he had become very aware of our issue. In fact, he invited me to talk with his staff about how he could be helpful on the E&C Committee, saying that he had "always supported an expanded definition of primary care."

I met with Braley's staff on Thursday and they agreed to send language to the House Legislative Counsel, which is the office responsible for drafting legislation. Once we have the legislative language we will be prepared to attach it to any health care legislation that may move and Braley will be there to help push it.

So why is Congressman Braley so helpful?


Members of Congress make about $175,000 a year. They maintain a household back in their home district but also need a place to live in DC, which can be an expensive market. Most are not independently wealthy. Because of this, many members of Congress have shared housing in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a tradition that goes back more than 200 years.

Remember that personal experiences can often be the key factor in a decision-making process for a legislator? Through his daughter's experiences, Perlmutter understands the needs of people who live with epilepsy. Like most members of Congress, he isn't shy about sharing his experiences.

Kagen, Braley, and Perlmutter are roommates.