AARC leaders take their service to DC, temporarily

Emily Eisbruch, special to the WJN

Margo Schlanger

Sam Bagenstos and Margo Schlanger recently had a major transition in their lives as they relocated, for the time being, from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C. Sam is serving as general counsel for the Office and Management and Budget in the new Biden/Harris administration. Margo continues her work, remotely, as the Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.

Leaders in the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, Margo was AARC board chair in 2015 and 2016, and Sam served on the AARC board in 2020. Their kids Leila and Harry were b’nei mitzvah in 2013. I talked with Sam and Margo about their new adventures.

Sam Bagenstos

Emily: How is life in Washington, D.C.? What are you liking and are there any challenges?

Margo: We’re having a great time here, although of course we miss our friends and life in Ann Arbor. This is my third and Sam’s fourth stint in D.C. — we last lived here in 2010 and 2011. So it’s both familiar and new. We have lots of friends here, and hope to see more of them as people are vaccinated and COVID-related restrictions ease. The biggest challenge has just been setting up a new home: after a temporary stay elsewhere, we’re living in a lovely apartment in the middle of a very busy neighborhood. I’m working at home, and am getting used to the sirens and city noises (today, I thought I’d set off a fire alarm cooking lunch, but it turns out it was a restaurant on the first floor of our building).

Emily: Sam, tell us about your work at the Office of Management and Budget. 

Sam: My job involves working on basically every aspect of domestic policy. In any given day, I may review regulations from multiple agencies, help prepare executive orders for the President’s signature, advise on the drafting of legislation, and work with federal agencies to implement the President’s agenda. I feel privileged and humbled to be able to do my part to address the key crises we face: COVID-19, the economy, racial injustice, and climate change.

Emily: Sam, what size of team do you work with? Do you work remotely or in person?

Sam: OMB has about 450 employees, about 90 percent of whom are career staff. The basic ethos of the place has been described by a famous political scientist as aiming at “neutral competence.” The idea is that OMB is the place that makes sure that the rest of the Executive Branch is effective and assiduous in carrying out the President’s program. So, every day, I work with folks from the White House and a variety of cabinet departments and agencies. I am working in person, though most of my staff — and most of the staff of the Executive Branch — are working remotely.

Emily: How do you hope your work will improve government and society?

Sam: I hope that I can help move along efforts to get people relief from COVID-19 and the economic dislocations it has caused and to help set our economy on a more sustainable and just path. My job is really to help government work better, and to clear away bureaucratic obstacles to delivering for the people. Every day, I feel like I’m helping to make a little progress. One of the great parts of my job is that I get to work on all of the domestic policy issues confronting the government. But a huge chunk of my time has focused on responding to the COVID pandemic — making sure that vaccination and testing programs can be funded and work well, protecting workers and others against the virus, ensuring kids and teachers can safely go back to school, and so forth. It’s been enormously rewarding to play a role in that.

Emily: What is your daily routine like compared to life in Ann Arbor?

Margo: Really, everything is kind of dominated by the pandemic, still. I’ve been working from home here, just like I did in Michigan. I’m mostly on a research leave, this semester, working on several writing projects — but I’m doing a bit of remote teaching, just like I did in Ann Arbor. As folks are vaccinated and the world opens up, I expect it will make more of a difference that we’re living in the middle of a big city, not a college town.

Emily: Margo, you’ve been a key advocate for immigrants in Michigan, and you wrote about this in your April 2019 Washtenaw Jewish News piece “The Mitzvot of Immigration Advocacy.” Are you continuing your work on immigration? Has this changed with your move to Washington, D.C. or the new Biden/Harris administration?

Margo: I’ve been continuing to work on immigration issues here. I just published a short article about a new legal strategy to promote accountability for disability discrimination by private prisons holding immigration detainees. (See https://lawreviewblog.uchicago.edu/2021/03/05/schlanger-detention/.) The Biden/Harris administration is far less anti-immigrant than the Trump administration was, and I’m hopeful that this will lead to more humane and welcoming policies. Right now, that’s all still settling out, and I’m doing some advocacy to push the administration along.

Emily: How are your kids adapting to their parents’ new home base in D.C.?

Margo: Our kids are juniors in college, and as it happens, they are both out on the east coast. So we’re actually quite a bit closer to them from here. So far, COVID has meant that they haven’t been able to visit. But it looks like Harry will spend the summer with us; he’s got research to do at the National Archives, and that means our D.C. apartment will be a perfect location for him for a few months.

Emily: How has your move impacted your Jewish community participation?

Margo & Sam: Not so much, actually. AARC’s communal life is entirely remote right now. So we’re still able to participate fully. Sam did have to withdraw as AARC treasurer, but Margo continues to do occasional projects for the AARC Board. As live gatherings restart, we may need to adjust; there’s a Reconstructionist Havurah down the street, so perhaps we’ll venture over there.

Emily: Thanks, we appreciate your sharing this exciting journey with us.

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