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Political Scene

The Great Washington Rift
Steven Quane

“Policy, Politics and Procedure.” Those three words were drilled into the incoming class of American Association for the Advancement of Science Congress-ional Science Fellows as all 30 of us sat wide-eyed in the Library of Congress during an intense orientation seminar on how our government “really works.” We were taught that the “three P’s” are equally important when making decisions regarding national legislation. The frank, three-hour whirlwind session is the same as the one given to freshman members of Congress as they settle into their offices in Washington, D.C.

The reactions from the other fellows in my class were varied. Some idealists gasped in disbelief that federal policy-making is not dominated by, well, policy. Other perhaps already jaded members of my class smirked and nodded in tacit agreement — that’s just the way it is. At the time, I was somewhere in the middle.

Now, after three months in the trenches of a congressional office, I smirk and nod while reciting the “three P’s” — Politics, Procedure and what’s the other one? Oh yeah, Policy.

Politics

Everyone knows that everything in Washington revolves around politics. However, we are living in especially partisan times. After such a short time on Capitol Hill, I do not pretend to understand the politics of certain situations; I simply recognize that the politics are important. The partisan nature of this business is striking.

As a volcanologist observing the recent controversial and important votes last fall, I can best describe the situation as the Great Washington Rift. Capitol Hill is slowly spreading apart, with red rocks on one side and blue on the other. The rift is flooded with all kinds of legislation. Some pieces of legislation are nefarious, while some are meaningful, adequately debated and based on the best scientific knowledge available. However, a bipartisan effort to pass good pieces of legislation is as infrequent as a rift-related volcanic eruption.

Procedure

Like most staffers on the Hill, I am learning procedure as I go. The system of parliamentary procedure in the U.S. House of Representatives is a complex web of ever changing rules. Article I section V of the Constitution states that “Each House [Senate and House of Representatives] may determine the rules of its proceedings.” Hence, there are countless rules, and they are always changing.

Congress is always voting on rules and amendments to rules. If you asked congressional staffers across the Hill if they understand what is going on at all times on the House floor, I wouldn’t be the only one to sheepishly say, “kind of.”

Policy

The best way I have to describe legislative policy on Capitol Hill is to cite Scottish poet Robert Burns: The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

The journey of a piece of legislation is purposefully long and arduous, thus reducing the chances of passing bad laws. If legislation gets to the House floor, everyone is supposed to have had a shot at it. Great system, right? Politics, however, too often control procedure and policy.

When the majority party wants to pass legislation on a controversial topic, they often create a rule and add it to an existing and sometimes completely unrelated bill. A good example of this is the recent vote over whether or not to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling. Certain members of Congress have been unsuccessfully trying to enact this policy for 25 years. Most recently, instead of having an up or down vote on whether to open ANWR, it was tacked on to a defense appropriations bill, for which there was significant political pressure to pass. As a result, the appropriations bill passed the House with the provision to drill in ANWR. After a filibuster, however, the Senate leadership removed the provision from its bill, leaving ANWR protected for the time being.

Hope?

Many members of the scientific community look at the situation described above and the lack of peer-reviewed science in federal policy-making with disdain. True, in the current environment, it is very difficult for policies based on sound science to have a chance. Furthermore, the United States and our science community currently face tremendous challenges. This is evident by the briefings on Capitol Hill, and by what we hear in the news.

Each week, we read about an increase in negative effects on society due to global climate change and the end of cheap, easily attainable oil and natural gas. Meanwhile, the United States is falling further behind in math and science education. Gloomy, but there’s still some hope.

On the first day of my fellowship, I was thrown into the fire and handed legislative issues regarding “peak oil.” The term refers to the reality that the world is going to reach its peak in oil production soon — possibly within the next decade or two. The exact date of the peak is vehemently debated, but actually not very important. If mitigation is not done now, the resulting increase in the price of oil and gas will negatively affect every part of our society.

My first task regarding peak oil was to help form the bipartisan House Peak Oil Caucus, co-founded by Reps. Tom Udall (D-N.M., my boss) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.). Shortly after its formation, the Peak Oil Caucus introduced House Resolution 507, expressing the desire of the House of Representatives for the United States to collaborate with international allies to establish a new project to address the inevitable challenges of peak oil. This project would encapsulate a level of scope, creativity and sense of urgency not seen since the mission to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. A project of such magnitude has the potential to significantly improve efficiency with which we drill for, recover, and use oil and natural gas; greatly improve the use of renewable and clean energy; reduce the human effects contributing to global warming; and boost our science community back into strong global leadership.

Currently, H.R. 507 has 18 co-sponsors, half Republican, half Democrat, and has had a hearing in the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Is this the start of a groundswell that will effectively close the Great Washington Rift, or at least stop further spreading? Let’s hope so. At least it may change my mantra back to “Policy, Politics and Procedure.”


Quane is the William L. Fisher 2005-2006 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. He is working in the office of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this year.

Links:

"A Volcanologist Enters Energy Politics," Geotimes, November 2005
"Geoscientists meet Hill policy," Geotimes, December 2005

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