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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Capitol Hill and the Classroom

One writer takes a look at GOVT 86.54: “Congressional Investigations,” where students stage a mock investigative hearing at the end of the term.

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On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol, attempting to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The attack prompted a year-and-a-half-long congressional investigation into former President Donald Trump’s role in the riot. Visiting professor Kristin Amerling, who served as the chief counsel and deputy staff director of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, has since shifted her focus from Washington to Hanover, where she’s currently teaching GOVT 86.54: Congressional Investigations, Law and Democratic Governance, a seminar on congressional investigations.

The course “introduces students to the purpose and practice of congressional investigations,” including the role of congressional oversight, tools used in such investigations and challenges and solutions to conducting effective congressional inquiries, according to its syllabus. Students take on oversight challenges as congressional investigators and eventually stage an investigative hearing in the final weeks of the course, the syllabus explains. 

As one of Washington’s foremost experts on congressional oversight, Amerling has delivered lectures on the subject for years. However, it wasn’t until conducting a pilot course as part of a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics last spring that Amerling formally began teaching, she explained. According to Amerling, her experience at Harvard served as the impetus “to build out this course,” which she “was very excited to have the opportunity to do … at Dartmouth.”

Zoe McGuirk ’25, a student in Amerling’s class, praised both the relevance of the course and Amerling’s expertise on the subject matter. The course is designed “to be in touch with where we’re at right now and what we’re interested in, and to observe the real-life implications of Congress’s authority to investigate,” McGuirk added.

“Throughout her teaching, [Amerling] provides her own personal experiences and anecdotes,” McGuirk said. “It’s really nice to get the real-life context … it’s more tangible than it would be if you were just reading the rules of Congress and reading about how they’re authorized to conduct oversight.”

The College’s government department and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy frequently invites visiting lecturers with hands-on experience to teach undergraduate courses. Professor Benjamin Valentino, who serves as chair of the government department, emphasized the faculty’s commitment to integrating academic and practical aspects of politics. 

“We’re always looking to bring in people who can marry up our academic, theoretical exploration of politics with the actual practice of politics,” Valentino said.

According to Valentino, Amerling’s arrival was met with great enthusiasm as the congressional investigation process was a subject which had previously been absent from the government department’s curriculum. Amerling’s expertise combines “academic exploration and real-world experience that I think is really valuable for our students,” Valentino explained.

“We’re trying to make sure that students get a sense of what’s going on in the real world, not just how we can study this in the classroom,” Valentino said. “Policymakers know how these theories get put into practice.”

Throughout her career, Amerling has held various positions both in and outside of government. Over time, she explained, she has focused more on public service since it directly influences public policy. After graduating from Harvard College, Amerling started on Capitol Hill and worked in the office of then-Rep.Ted Weiss (D-NY). Following her stint in Weiss’s office, Amerling served as State of Maine Press Secretary to then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME). Working in Sen. Mitchell’s office “was really a big window into the possibility of somebody who’s smart, and serious and focused, as Senator Mitchell is, to really have a huge impact on people’s lives,” she explained.

After earning her law degree and working as an associate at Steptoe and Johnson, Amerling returned to the Hill as a junior counsel on the investigative staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, under then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). She remained on Capitol Hill for 15 years, undertaking an impressive career in congressional investigations, including chief counsel to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as well as chief counsel to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“One thing kind of led to another,” Amerling said. “I continued to find the work interesting and really, really meaningful for me.”

Though her work at Dartmouth differs from her previous work in the government, Amerling has enjoyed her time at the College.

“It has been a fantastic experience,” she said. “The students are intelligent, creative and insightful.”

In addition to lectures and discussions, Amerling has invited guest speakers with backgrounds in public service to offer students varied perspectives. According to Amerling, these speakers “have had the ability to improve people’s lives and solve problems through their work in Congress and the executive branch.”

McGuirk highlighted the value of this approach, noting how it contextualizes academic discussions and the intricacies of conducting federal investigations.

“I think that bringing professionals in provides a lot more context to the academic learning that you’re doing,” McGuirk said. “Understanding all of the work, thought, attention to detail and intent that goes into conducting any investigation — but especially one as high-profile and politicized as [the one conducted by] the Jan. 6 Committee — has been really eye-opening.”

Amerling said her ultimate goal is for her students to grasp the scope of congressional powers and the oversight tools Congress has at its disposal, which she refers to as “the nuts and bolts of investigative work.”

“I hope that students will take away that work in government — depending on the environment you’re working in — can just be a tremendous opportunity to make a positive impact,” she said.


Halle Troadec
Halle ('24) is a sports writer for The Dartmouth. She is from North Potomac, Maryland.