Monthly Archives: November 2012

This Land

Driving back to Washington after a wonderful and restful vacation at my childhood home in upstate New York gave me plenty of time to reflect on the journey and on the scenery.  I spent four years of college driving the rolling hills of I-88 in New York and I-84 in Pennsylvania, and home in my heart will probably always be a landscape of mixed pine and hardwood trees interspersed with farmers’ fields dotted by farmhouses and barns.

I missed the brilliant fall foliage of home-home this year.  Although the forests denuded of leaves initially felt a bit bleak and cold, as I drove, I started to recognize the subtle hues in the browns of the trees and the gray of the sky.  My Beloved Husband has taught me to see that if these scenes are to be painted, that other tones such as purple, blue, and red must all be mixed in to properly convey the richness in the neutral colors.  Winter brings a subtle landscape that requires more quiet and observation to appreciate in contrast to the longed-for golden greens of spring and the flashier displays of summer and autumn.

As I contemplated the landscape that had accompanied my driving all those years ago, I felt my heart reach beneath the trees into the bones of the land upon which I began to build my life as an adult.  I could feel the connection to other landscapes in other parts of the country where I have lived or visited.  The plains in Texas and Michigan.  The mountains of Tennessee, Colorado, Maine, Seattle, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.  The deserts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  The beaches of Cape Cod, California, and the Keys. The glaciers and fjords of Alaska.  The endless marsh of the Everglades.  When people at work question how I can represent Colorado effectively without having lived there, I explain that my travels and adventures have instilled in me a soul-deep love of the land.  No other explanation has been required.

When I was originally deciding whether to accept the Congressional Fellowship or the Executive branch fellowship, which most likely would have led to a placement in the State Department, my one regret with my choice was that I would lose the opportunity to have an international experience for this year.  I don’t think I anticipated how much this year would add to my understanding and appreciation for my own country and all of its variety.  In addition to learning the land, for each office in which I interviewed, I also learned a little about the people in each state- how they earn a living, what causes are important to them, and how they spend their leisure time.  It certainly would have been easier to work in an office where I already knew the local people and their issues, but my experiences with Colorado are encouraging me to take ownership of the whole country and all Americans, rather than just a state or a region.

When I have been asked what I wanted from my experiences this year, I have explained that I want my world to be bigger.  I didn’t anticipate that my heart would get bigger as well.

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Rules of the Senate

As part of trying to pack in as many experiences and learning opportunities as possible into a single year, I recently took a two day course offered by the Congressional Research Service as part of their Legislative Process Institute.  This course is intended to give staffers a moderate-level understanding of the rules by which Congress functions.

When I arrived for the class, I learned that we were divided into two different groups, one for Senate staff and one for the House staff, since the rules in the two chambers differ significantly.  I was gratified that two of my fellow Fellows were part of the Senate group, and there were three other Fellows in the House group.  There may be something to this whole Fellows mafia business considering how often we turn up in groups!

As a veteran of many faculty meetings, I have a reasonably good grasp of Robert’s Rules of Order.  It turns out that they bear only a passing resemblance to the rules by which the Senate runs.  Our first session of the day, which was an overview of “Considering Measures in the Senate” turned out to be incredibly intense.  No one even dreamed of checking email or phone messages during this session.  I found that even after my brain checked out only for a few seconds, when I refocused, the speaker seemed to be saying, “Jargon jargon term jargon term term jargon jargon…”  What?  With laser-like concentration, I could just about keep up.

The second session was an hour all about Unanimous Consent.  This is one of the most important rules of the Senate, and it is the reason that individual Senators hold so much power, regardless of their seniority.  With Unanimous Consent (often known as UC),a vote can be called, a bill can be passed, a nomination can be confirmed, and the color of the sky may be declared to be green.  If just one Senator objects, then it is obviously not unanimous, and this type of action is cut off.  UC is by far the speediest way to move actions along on the floor, but it requires getting everyone on board in advance.

It helped me to keep in mind that passing a bill requires two steps.  The first is that everyone must agree to vote on the bill.  The second is actually having the vote.  One key difference between Senate rules and Robert’s rules is that in Robert’s rules, you can move the question, which can potentially precipitate the vote.  There is no such parallel action in the Senate.  In general, you either get UC to have a vote, or people all stop talking.  I’m sure you can guess how likely that second is.

The third way to bring a vote is to file for cloture, and that requires 3/5 of the Senators, so 60 votes in favor of the cloture motion.  There are, however, some extra rules involved.  Once cloture has been filed, it is not voted on until two days of Senate session later.  So if you file on Monday, you aren’t even going to vote on cloture till Wednesday.  If your cloture motion passes with 60 votes, then you still can debate for up to 30 more hours of floor time.  You may still have amendments if they were filed prior to the cloture vote and if they are germane (relevant) to the central motion.  It’s also possible that you may need a sequence of cloture votes if you are dealing with amendments to the central question.  So although cloture works, it tends to chew up large amounts of floor time, which is one of the most precious commodities in the Senate.  This is why even the threat of a filibuster is effective; filibusters essentially stop all action on the floor and prevent much of anything from getting done.

The other interesting Senate departure from Robert’s rules involves the creation of Amendment trees.  An amendment may be offered to a central bill, then that amendment can be amended (1st level) and an additional amendment can be offered, so you have an amendment to the amendment to the amendment (2nd level.)  Thankfully, we are spared from higher complexity because Thomas Jefferson stated that 3rd level amendments would just be embarrassing.  The Parliamentarian keeps track of these machinations through a diagram called an amendment tree, and because of the level limits, there is a point at which the amendment tree is full, and no other amendments are in order.  Filling the amendment tree is often a defensive strategy to prevent people from gumming up the works with stray amendments.  Just to make things more interesting, you can still get Unanimous Consent to set aside a current amendment and introduce new ones, so there can be dozens of amendments all flying around simultaneously, even if they aren’t considered all at the same time.

So, having been taught all of these strange rules, we had a chance to put them to work.  Our scenario was that we were part of a new Senate Committee, and we would be using the formal Senate procedure to establish rules for the committee.  The organizers divided us somewhat randomly into majority and minority caucuses and we were ranked by seniority within the caucus based on how much time we had actually been on the Hill.  Thus the Fellows ended up about two-thirds of the way down the pecking order.  The two caucuses met independently, and then after dinner, we got to try out our new skills.

We had a blast!  There is definitely no better way to learn than to actually have to put the words together and figure out how to match up the appropriate procedure for the outcome you want.  I was a member of the minority party in the exercise, and since we had no actual power, we had to rely on our powers of persuasion to have a bipartisan committee that worked across the aisle.  My information later from the majority caucus was that they were originally planning to use their superior numbers to slant all the power in their favor.  Thus our minority party was actually quite effective since we achieved good compromises on nearly all of our major issues.  A few majority party members prevented their team from giving away *all* of their advantages, but we certainly set a very good example for how to work together.

In the House, funds for Committees are usually divided about 2/3 for the majority party and 1/3 for the minority party.  In the Senate, the funds are often divided up according to the ratio of members from each party.  Thus when our Ranking Member, the minority caucus leader, calmly offered an amendment that the funding be split evenly between the two parties, I thought our facilitator was going to fall out of her chair.  We did, as planned, fall back to accept the funding ratio corresponding to the ratio of our members, but it was fun to be that audacious.  The whole Senate group was superb with having nearly all of the members participate and with trying to stretch the boundaries of strategies that we had encountered.  One amendment was offered simply because we hadn’t seen one type of amendment tree yet and we wanted to see how that worked.  We had a ball, we left ten minutes after the target end time, and our facilitator said we were the best group she’d had in years.  That was not an empty platitude because one of our speakers the following day said that our facilitator had raved about us and how energized and creative we were.

The following day, we learned about the Congressional Record and how to follow a case through the written report, and then we learned a bit about the House Rules, which were quite different and therefore quite bewildering compared to what we’d learned about the Senate.

After a bill makes its way through the House and the Senate, it often looks different because of different amendments.  To make a law, the House and Senate must pass the same version.  Thus the most effective way to reconcile the two versions is through a conference to figure out what that same version will be.  Our final exercise of the class assigned us each a role on a conference committee, and we learned how deals are made and how to ensure that the bills will be passable when they go back to the chambers for the final votes.  The folks from the Senate exercise remained strong participants, and if the second exercise wasn’t quite as fun as the first, we still had a good time.

When the Senate is in session, most offices will have a TV on tuned to C-Span so they can watch the action on the Senate floor.  I’m looking forward to post-Thanksgiving action when I’ll have at least some understanding of what is happening.

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Libraries

If my family has a motto, it is certainly, “You can never have too many books.”  As a bookworm, my native environment has always been in libraries.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time at the library in my hometown.  I know I started going when I was very young because by kindergarten, I could check out my own large stacks of picture books using the four digit code of my mother’s library card, which I’d memorized.  By first grade, the kindly librarian felt I had demonstrated sufficient responsibility to be given my own library card, whose number I apparently still have memorized: 7204.  Possibly that was also a recognition of the volume of books I was borrowing on a weekly basis.

As I grew older, the library became a place where I could wait for a ride home after ballet lessons or handbell choir.  Although I now don’t consider 15 minutes to be much of a drive at all, in a small town where people walked many places and I regularly walked from school to downtown, that was quite a hike, and it was good to have a safe and dry place to wait.  The Huntington Library was in an enormous old house that had wonderful window seats, odd rooms, and back doors to investigate, so even the building itself leant itself to imagination of a growing child and young girl.

In junior high and high school, I had a friend, Kathy, who did some of the same activities that I did and lived close to my house, so our parents would take turns picking up both of us.  Kathy and I had a favorite game in the young adult room called, “Pick a shelf.”  We took turns selecting a shelf, and we would count up how many books each of us had read.  Whoever had the highest tally won that shelf.  The Nancy Drew shelf was always a toss-up since both of us had read the entire series, but the few Hardy Boys books (on the same shelf) we had read were different, which could break the tie.  I was always sure to win the F shelf with the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, but to this day, I have never read the Anne of Green Gables books because Kathy already had such a lock on the Lucy Maud Montgomery shelf that it didn’t seem worth the effort.  The game did encourage me to branch out and read some random new books since if our parental ride was running late and we got well into the game, a shelf could be won by having read a single book.

I have obviously grown up and moved away, but to this day, there is an element of homecoming when I enter a library even for the first time.

I knew that I had chosen my apartment in DC well when I realized that my local library is about a five minute walk away.  It’s a small branch library, but what it may lack in onsite selection, it more than makes up for in one of the speediest interlibrary loan programs I have ever encountered.  I have been ordering a steady stream of books since I arrived, and I’m feeling particularly virtuous that I haven’t paid for hardcopies, and I won’t have those extra books to move back to Connecticut with me.  I still have the sense of treasure to be discovered in that building, and even after only a few short months, the librarians seem to recognize me as a frequent visitor.  I recently ended up in line behind other people because the first person was just getting her new library card.  The rest of us seemed undisturbed by the wait, each of us understanding the value of that new card as a gateway to information and adventures.  I get as much pleasure out of my DC library card as I did from 7204.

Gateway to adventures

I was enchanted to discover that in addition to the DC public library system and the Library of Congress, that the Senate itself also has a library that happens to be in the Russell Senate Office building where I work.  It was a library- I had a personal mission to investigate.

On the afternoon of Election Day, when the action was at the polls rather than in the Senate, I took advantage of a tour given by one of the reference librarians.  I certainly have the capacity to find my way around a library, but considering the unusual nature of the Senate library’s holdings, it was a virtue to have a native guide.  One of my fellow Fellows obviously had the same idea since we were two of the three people on the tour. Our guide was a quintessential librarian, and as he described the resources, I felt that we were being introduced to his friends.  He would affectionately stroke the bindings of the books or pick one out with the ease of long familiarity and read us a random snippet.

The Senate library focuses on the history, procedures, and resources of the Senate, and the reference librarians are magnificent at helping track down even the vaguest of requests with alacrity.  I was charmed to discover that the holdings go beyond bills and laws to include a broader scope of materials that are of value to Senators and their staffs.  For example, there is a selection of books on CD for people traveling between homes and the Capitol as well as travel books for the states and for foreign countries.  The library also has fiction books or history books that relate to Washington or the Senate in some way.  Books written by the Senators, regardless of the genre, are included as well.  In addition to Sen. Byrd’s multi-volume history of the senate, it has Sen. Al Franken’s books.  Sen. Mikulski and Boxer have each written a few novels, not coincidentally featuring female Senators, and Sen. Clinton’s works are represented both through her biographies and through the book she wrote on the White House pets when she was First Lady.  My Senate badge serves as my library card, and I just had to check out a book or two to test the system.

It made me smile to realize that even in this important governmental building, I was able to walk in and still sense that invitingly comfortable library feeling of a bookworm in her native environment.  Since it resides in the oldest of the Senate office buildings, the library also has some of those classic nooks and crannies to hide out and find a little peace and quiet.  I have no lack of privacy in my office, but I almost want to have some distractions so I’ll have the excuse to decamp to the library, cozy up in a comfy chair, and lose myself, even if it’s a report on energy policy rather than Nancy Drew.

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Sequestration and the Fiscal Cliff

When I started considering the idea of writing a blog, I thought about actually keeping two separate blogs- one more professional about weighty topics, and one that I would use to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m away and share my adventures.  (During my previous sabbatical in Knoxville, the “Adventures of the Tennessee Yankee” emails were quite popular.)  Fortunately, my advisory friends, who are wiser than I, suggested that I would be lucky to have time for one blog, much less two.  They were so right!  Thus this blog is a blend of my professional experiences and my personal adventures.  Since I’ve focused on some of my adventures lately, it’s time for a civics lesson.

Having gotten beyond the election, the issue that is getting the most attention and the most discussion in the Capital these days is the Fiscal Cliff, referring to the automatic spending cuts combined with the end of the Bush-era tax cuts that are all due to hit in January 2013.

In case you’ve been avoiding the news, here’s the history. The Budget Control Act (BCA- sometimes I think I’m drowning in acronyms!) was passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2011, which was the most recent time they raised the debt ceiling on how much money the Federal government could borrow.  In recognition that the short term debt was necessary, but long term debt is highly undesirable, there were provisions in the BCA to try to prevent the situation from getting out of hand.  The higher borrowing limit was counterbalanced by spending cuts were targeted over a ten year period, starting in 2012.  The problem has been that no one could decide how to accomplish these cuts.

That’s where the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction came in, better known as the supercommittee from in the summer of 2011.  It was a bipartisan committee who tried to come to an agreement about how to reduce the deficit.  Anyone who has dealt with a household budget knows that getting out of debt requires some combination of spending less and earning more money.  The Republicans on the supercommittee favored spending less through budget cuts.  The Democrats on the supercommittee wanted to combine spending less with earning more money, and in government terms, that generally deals with taxes.  Because the members of the supercommittee could not agree on a plan, it triggered another provision in the Budget Control Act,

At the time that the BCA was passed, everyone agreed that the deficit had to be reined in, one way or another.  The follow up provision if the supercommittee was unable to make a deal was that automatic “across the board” cuts in spending, called “sequestration” are being triggered, and those cuts are scheduled to begin in 2013.  Unfortunately, the tax cuts passed by President (George W.) Bush also run out at the end of 2012, so there are two separate financial binds that will hit the country simultaneously.  That’s why the whole situation is being referred to as the Fiscal Cliff.

To use an analogy, if I think about Hurricane Sandy and its recent damage, the people who expected to be affected had a chance to do some planning.  They could evacuate, they could gather supplies, and they could even take actions to reduce the damage.  I read a story over the weekend of a man in Manhattan who owns a wine store, and with the help of many friends, he managed to move about half of his inventory to a higher floor in his building so his damages were still significant, but were reduced from what might have been had he not planned well.  Taking action on the sequestration and tax cuts allows the situation to be handled like Sandy.  Not taking action will result in a situation more like a house fire, which doesn’t give the chance to prioritize what might be saved.

What was not obvious to me until I had my two week intensive introduction to American government during Fellows orientation is that “across the board” does not actually apply to the entire Federal budget.  There are programs in the budget that are mandated, sometimes known as “entitlements” that are not affected by the sequestration cuts.  These programs include Social Security, military pay, and Medicaid, and the spending on these programs depends on a formula. A person who worked a certain length of time, is a certain age, and who put a certain amount of money into the system will get a monthly stipend of a certain amount.  It’s difficult to control spending on these programs since in order to change the amount spent, the formula must change.  Medicare, another one of the mandated programs, will see a 2% cut at most.  So the automatic funding cuts of sequestration hit the rest of the budget, known as discretionary spending, divided roughly into spending on defense and spending on everything else.  If you look at the graphic below, you’ll see that the mandatory spending pieces make up about 60% of the budget.

 

If sequestration occurs, then programs in education, the arts, infrastructure, and defense will all see a drastic reduction in funding.  Research scientists are particularly concerned about the effect of cuts on funding from sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Depending on the program, between five and 20% of the proposals submitted to these agencies currently receive funding, and sequestration cuts would further hinder science and technology progress.

So what is to be done?  This is obviously a high priority for all the lawmakers in Washington, and the news is carrying stories of numerous people who are trying to find solutions ranging from the President to the Gang of 8, a bipartisan group of eight Senators who are discussing options. As for giving you the inside scoop, these decisions are all being made above my pay grade, and I don’t have any insights to share.

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The Election

About a month ago, two of my friends asked if they might come down to visit me for the election.  I enthusiastically embraced the concept of election tourism, even if they hadn’t quite decided what should be involved.  I was already expecting that this will be my only election to experience in the nation’s Capital, and probably at no other time will the results of the election have such a significant potential influence on my job.  Having old friends to share the experience with would be icing on the cake.

I decided that election tourism must focus on the government and history rather than on DC’s wealth of museums, so on Sunday afternoon, I took my friends to see some of the newer monuments, on Monday we went to hear arguments at the Supreme Court, and on Tuesday, I used my connections to get us a tour of the Capitol that included gallery passes to see the House and Senate Chambers.  I’ll write about those experiences at some point, but they seemed a fitting framework for Tuesday night’s election.

The most important decision, I felt, was where my election tourists should spend Tuesday night watching the returns.  To get the DC election experience, I decided that the party at the National Press Club would be the best choice.  Some of my fellow Fellows came as well and brought friends, several of whom I knew from the debate party, so we were well-represented.  The Press Club ballroom was set up with five large screens showing three different networks and two with the Twitter feed from the Press Club hash tag, which was mostly by people in the room.  We managed to scavenge chairs to sit together in the center to watch the CNN broadcast.

An additional important virtual presence in our party was my sister, who not only had been sent to California for a work-related meeting, but had been scheduled for a team-building dinner that evening, much to her extreme frustration.  I remember that four years ago, her election watching plans included having the TV on while simultaneously cross-referencing with several of her favorite blogs, so she is a bit of an election junky.  I was detailed to text her updates once she went to dinner, but for the early hours of the returns when she was obviously still in her hotel room on her computer, she was actually feeding more data to me than we were getting from CNN!  I shared her information with the rest of my group, which spiced up the early part of the evening.

The Press Club party was billed as a bipartisan event, and early on in the evening, a member of the Press Club welcomed us and reminded everyone that indeed we should play nicely with each other.  It was indeed a very congenial crowd that was very respectful of different perspectives, but the huge cheer that greeted the news that Elizabeth Warren had won the Massachusetts Senatorial race was strong evidence that the crowd was not equally distributed between the two parties.

One of the strangest moments of self-realization for me was that I was almost more interested in the results of the Senate races than of the Presidential race.  Both of my fellow Fellows who were at the party have placed in the Senate in Democratic offices, so the three of us had a strong stake in the D’s retaining their majority there.  Every now and then, we would put our heads together to discuss the progress of the Senate races and how our prospects looked for the upcoming year.  Some races were personal; offices in which our friends were working because the seat had been looking solid for months.  We were happy that the predictions turned out to be true and our friends would not have to shift offices having just gotten settled.  Other races involved senators whose contests were too close to risk taking a fellow, but we had also gotten to know those offices as part of doing our research for placement, and it seemed almost as though we were happy for the success of family members.

As the results rolled in and the swing states started to get resolved, my new connections to Colorado kicked in as I hoped that their electoral votes would be the deciding ones.  Next to me, a Fellow working with Sen. Harkin from Iowa was equally determined that her new “home” state would tip the scales.

At the end, everyone was on their feet for the final projection.  My sister had gone off to dinner, so I texted her “Done.”  She replied, “It’s official?”  I texted back, “The Empire State Building is blue.”

That might be the end of the story, except that just like a sporting event, the following day involved different people processing the results in their own ways.  My friend the policy wonk analyzed the messages sent by the election results and their potential implications for the next Congress.  Two Congressional staffers shared their adventures having taken off for Election Day.  One spent the day as a Democratic monitor at the polls making sure that all the proper procedures were followed.  Another worked support in a polling place that had extremely long lines.  He described their efforts to keep people upbeat and willing to stay, and my patriotic heart was touched by the response of people who spent two and a half hours in line waiting to vote.  People would drive to the polling place, see the line, and still park and join the queue.  They said, “Well, of course I stayed to vote!”

My own personal analysis was to count the number of women senators we’ll have starting in January.  With 20 women in the Senate, we are starting to approach the point where they are somewhat less than an oddity or an exception.  I especially look forward to watching their collective impact on the landscape in the next few years.

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SuperStorm Sandy

One of the challenges of coming to DC for a sabbatical was being so far away from my family.  My Beloved Husband is in Madison for the fall semester at the University of Wisconsin to do fabulous lab research in excellent facilities and to be close to two of his daughters and go to band and choir concerts while he has the opportunity.  The girls usually sneak in a visit to Hartford around Halloween when they get a school break, so I set off on Friday morning to go for a visit to see their state instead..

I arrived in Madison at 9 AM on Friday, and we set off for an afternoon with the girls.  Carving Jack O’Lanterns has become a tradition over the year, and the girls had already  scoped out a source of beautifully large round pumpkins for a very reasonable price.  The girls have become expert carvers over the years, and their results were quite impressive.

This year’s Jack O’Lanterns!

I was due to return to DC on Sunday night, and for once in my life, I had worked hard to counter my natural tendency to over-pack.  I began to regret that resolution when the news about Superstorm Sandy became more ominous, and it was no surprise when my late Sunday night flight into DC was canceled by Saturday night.  We knew it would be much faster to drive 15 minutes to the airport to rebook my flights than to deal with the phone lines, and my Beloved Husband was lobbying for as much extra time as he could get.  I was offered a return flight on Tuesday, but I suggested that I would be just as happy to wait until Wednesday.  That schedule seemed to be an appropriate combination of giving DC a chance to recover from the storm and having bonus time with my BH.  It turned out to be a wise decision anyway since the air travel was still spotty on Tuesday.  The Federal Government was closed all day Monday and Tuesday, so I didn’t really miss all that much work anyway.  I solved the clothing issue through the combination of a quick shopping trip and wearing my BH’s sweaters and flannel shirts.  I think this means that we are officially going steady.

An additional bonus to my bonus time in Madison was that a random email exchange with an old friend resulted in an offer for the BH and I to go tour the Bruker facility just south of the city.  That facility is where they make X-ray diffractometers, which is what I spent quite a bit of time on during my doctoral and post-doc years.  It was amazing to see the progress in the instrumentation in the past 15 years since most units now plug into the wall instead of needing 220V power, and the old high heat power sources that required external water cooling systems have been replaced by air-cooled but higher power systems.

An X-ray diffractometer and a self-portrait

We also got to see the manufacturing facility, and what struck me was that because each system is customized to the end user, from the very beginning, each unit is identified with the school or company for whom it is being built.  It was fun to match up the big enclosures with the racks of parts that would eventually be installed.

So not only did I get bonus time with my BH and got to wake up with him on my birthday morning (Halloween), we also got to indulge in supreme nerdiness as well.  I feel badly for everyone who suffered and is still suffering from Sandy, but she was a real gift to me this year.

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