The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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October 12, 2013

Exchange program gives Russians a glimpse of a democracy hardly at work

SUNBURY — By David A. Fahrenthold

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The group had come all the way from Russia; part of a foreign-exchange program set up by Congress to show off the virtues of American democracy.

But when they got here, neither Congress nor American democracy was having its best day.

"No. No way," said Ekaterina Ivanova, a TV journalist from Moscow, recalling her reaction when she heard what was going on.

For some reason, the legislators who had paid for her to visit had now shut down the government they wanted her to see. It's a joke, Ivanova thought.

It wasn't, of course. And so, on Day 11 of the government shutdown, among the many confused and displaced souls in Washington were 49 Russian educators, scientists and journalists brought here by the Open World Leadership Center, a kind of vanity project for Congress itself.

The mission of this 14-year-old program is to give foreign leaders, especially those from former Soviet republics, an up-close look at "America's democratic, accountable government."

The center is still functioning despite the shutdown, because Congress gave it funding that didn't expire with the fiscal year. "We can basically keep operating for a few more weeks before we run out of money," the center's Maura Shelden said.

So on Thursday, the Russians went out to see the U.S. government.

Or, at least, the outside of it.

They couldn't get very many meetings on the Hill, since a lot of congressional staff are on furlough. They couldn't get into the museums. And, instead of hearing lectures on democracy inside the ornate (but closed) Library of Congress, the group heard them inside a rented function room at an Embassy Suites hotel near Dupont Circle.

The Russians did learn some things about America. Maybe not the things Congress intended.

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