Monthly Archives: February 2013

Smithsonian Air and Space, Part I


Last week, the Fellows got a special tour of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  It turned out to be a standard tour by one of the docents followed by an unusual behind-the-scenes adventure.  Since there were two distinct parts, I’ll divide my stories into two separate posts.


Sputnik (the ball, not the plane!)

The Fellows run strongly to space nerds, and since it was one of the topics that brought my Beloved Husband and I together, it has a special place in my heart.  Thus I was pleased to get some extra perspectives that I hadn’t noticed before.  The first new object I learned was a replica of Sputnik, which is a silver sphere with four silver legs, kind of like a mutant spider.  The first US satellite, Explorer I, hangs nearby and has a more conventional rocket shape.  I rather liked Sputnik since I thought it had a much more satisfying science fiction aura to it.

Explorer I satellite

Explorer I satellite

To one side of the space exhibit hall are a pair of missiles, one from the USSR and one from the US, each of which carried nuclear warheads and were part of the Cold War.  During nuclear disarmament, the stockpiles of the weapons were all destroyed under the watchful eyes of inspectors from the other country.  Missiles like the ones we saw are now only used for training purposes.  That training can have its own hazards since some instructors like to wire a small firecracker into the electronics.  One wrong move and the trainee finds out about it really fast!  Kind of like a game of Operation but on a much bigger scale!

Soviet and American Nuclear missiles

Soviet and American Nuclear missiles

Also added to my radar was the Viking Mars Lander.  This unit preceded the current Mars Rovers, but was an important first step in the exploration of the red planet.  The unit that is displayed in the Smithsonian is genuine, even if it didn’t go to Mars and back.  This lander stayed in the lab and was used to test out communications.  As a test, a command would be sent to the lander in the lab.  If the lab lander carried out the instruction correctly, then the team could be reasonably confident that the sister lander on Mars would behave the same way.  I also picked up the detail that both the Rovers and the Landers on Mars will periodically shut down because their solar panels get covered with dust.  Then suddenly a brisk wind will brush the dust off the panels, and the units will be re-energized.

Viking Lander- lab version

Viking Lander- lab version

I’ve found that the Air and Space Museum with its specialized mission has a considerable advantage in its pool of docents.  The contents on display attract veterans who are often both highly trained and highly educated.  I’ve had tours from engineers who worked on the space program, and this past week’s tour was from a WWII naval navigator whose sons also became pilots.  Thus the Air and Space tours are peppered with extra stories and tidbits that the guides throw in from their own experiences.

the plane that flew around the world without stopping

the plane that flew around the world without stopping

Each guide obviously has his own favorite parts of the museum, and thus last week, we got more depth on the flight exhibits.  That was probably a good thing since I tend to visit the space exhibits as old friends rather than exploring new territory with the airplanes.  I’m not sure I had recognized the plane that flew around the world unfueled for the first time, which was hanging overhead in one of the large galleries.  Our guide suggested that the pilots of the flight, a man and a woman, had been living together before the flight.  After they completed their world tour, they each walked away and never spoke again.

Spirit of St. Louis

Spirit of St. Louis

Our guide’s knowledge of the details of flight gave us some unusual insights.  For example, he pointed out that on Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” plane that there is no front window.  Lindberg was concerned about the weight of the plane and having enough fuel to make the flight across the Atlantic.  He had no radio and no fuel gauges either, and his provisions were limited to two canteens of water and five sandwiches.  He navigated entirely by dead reckoning, which involved flying a certain distance or time along a certain compass setting and then making a course adjustment.  His navigation was so accurate that when he flew over Ireland, he was a mere 30 miles from his ideal position.  I’m not that accurate with dead reckoning when I can see where I’m going!

I was also amused that when our guide was talking about Apollo 13, that he provided this narrative.  “I think this story is made up, but considering that Jim Lovell, the commander on Apollo 13, was a naval pilot, I think it’s perfectly reasonable.  Tom Hanks played Jim Lovell in the movie, and Jim Lovell thought that was OK but that Tom Hanks wasn’t quite handsome enough for the role.”

One new object I learned to identify was SpaceShipOne, the first manned commercial vehicle to reach space, thus winning the Ansari X Prize.  Apparently at some point in the vehicle’s adventures, it acquired some dents, so the folks at the Air and Space museum were very confused when it showed up looking relatively un-battered.  They questioned the engineers, who explained that they had wanted to deliver their vehicle looking its best, so they had used dent-removal techniques like the ones used to repair cars to remove the damage.  The Air and Space folks explained that no, they wanted the dents, so the engineers proceeded to appropriately re-damage the craft.

The Air and Space museum is particularly fascinating because unlike most museums which are confined to using floor and wall space for displays, some of the most valuable display space is overhead.  One of the Fellows asked about how they got the planes into the building, and our guide explained that one whole end wall opens up.  Considering that the overhead space is already somewhat congested, they do try to minimize the need to move things around, though.

The Wright Flyer

The Wright Flyer

When asked what our guide’s favorite exhibit was, he immediately took us to the Wright Brother’s exhibit.  The original Wright Flyer that made the flight at Kitty Hawk is there, although they’ve had to replace the fabric twice.  Interestingly, a man who was connected to the Smithsonian also claimed to have made the first powered, controlled, manned flight in history.  None of his observers agreed that his craft had actually flown on its own, but the man was adamant.  The Wright brothers were perfectly happy to give their plane to the Smithsonian to preserve for history, but they required that the Smithsonian acknowledge that they had indeed been first in flight.  Thus their plane spent many years traveling around  to other museums including some time in a basement in London during the Blitz in WWII before the Smithsonian finally publicly accepted their accomplishment and got the plane.

More about behind-the-scenes in my next post.



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Senate Desks

In contrast to the House, where seating is not assigned, the Senator’s desks are the focus of numerous traditions.

Originally, a set of 48 desks were commissioned in 1819, and they were installed in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber.  When the Senate outgrew its old space and moved to its current chamber, the desks were also moved since the space was reconfigured for the Supreme Court who occupied the chamber until they finally got their own building in 1935.  The desks currently on display in the Old Senate Chamber are reproductions of the originals, complete with inkwells.  The last four desks in the current Senate chamber were built in the 1950s when Alaska and Hawaii became our last two states.

Traditionally in the Senate Chamber, Democrats sit on the right of the Presiding Officer and Republicans sit to the left.  That may seem reversed from what is expected, but as you sit in the chamber, the D’s are to the left and the R’s are to the right.  Currently, over half of the Senators either are Democrats or caucus with them, but apparently it just means that the desks are squeezed together a bit more snugly on the Democrat side and Republicans have a little more space on their side.  On a few past occasions, one party has had a supermajority that went beyond the capacity to crowd the desks together.  In those instances, a small group of Senators occupied part of the back row of the other party’s side.  This was referred to as a “Cherokee strip,” named after the Oklahoma panhandle that originally belonged neither to the state nor to the Indian Territory.  The most recent Cherokee strip was in the 76th Congress from 1939-1941, long before anyone had invented the term, “politically correct.”  In the 89th Congress, which started in 1965, they put four Senators into a fifth row instead.

At some point a tradition began of tracking the providence of each desk, so a combination of Roman numerals and Arabic numbers were affixed to each desk.  Eventually in the early 1900s Senators began their own tradition of scratching their names inside the desk drawers to keep a record.  After all this time of being trained not to deface desks, apparently it has become more acceptable if you are a Senator.

Some Senators want to use and keep certain desks, so when a new Congress begins and the seating map changes as more senior Senators gravitate toward the center and the front, the desks are unbolted from the floor and are relocated to the new spot.  Massachusetts has a particularly rich history with this tradition.  It was important to Senator Ted Kennedy to use the desk that his brother, John F. Kennedy used when he was in the Senate.  Ted even requested that the desk be left in its original spot in the back row, even after Ted had accrued enough seniority to move forward.  The desk of Robert F. Kennedy was used by Senator John Kerry until his colleague, Ted, passed away in office, at which point Kerry took ownership of the JFK desk but had it moved to his current seating location.

Kennedy/Kerry desk drawer

Kennedy/Kerry desk drawer

Like Senator Ted Kennedy, this past December, Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii passed away while he was in office.  Traditionally the Senate mourns the passing of their colleague by draping the desk in black fabric and placing a bowl of white flowers on top.  I made a special trip to the Senate gallery to observe the tribute to Senator Inouye.

Flowers on Senator Inouye's desk

Flowers on Senator Inouye’s desk

There are three desks that are the subject of resolutions in the Senate to establish who gets to use them.  The desk of Daniel Webster is always assigned to the senior Senator from New Hampshire, which is the state where he born, rather than Massachusetts, who he represented in the Senate.  Senator Jeanne Shaheen currently occupies this desk.  The Webster desk is also different from the rest since it lacks a 19th century modification that added an extra storage and workspace on the top.  I believe Webster commented something like, “If my predecessor was able to do his work on this limited space, I will endeavor to do the same.”  The desk is put up on blocks to make it the same height as the rest of the modified desks.

Evolution of the Senate desks

Evolution of the Senate desks

The desk of Jefferson Davis was nearly destroyed during the Civil War by soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts regiment, who were camped out in the chamber.  Fortunately, the Assistant door keeper rushed in and pointed out that it was government property that they were there to protect.  The desk was repaired with a different colored wood to identify the location of the damage.  By Senate Resolution, this desk is occupied by the senior Senator from Mississippi, currently Sen. Thad Cochran.  The last designated desk is that of Henry Clay, the great compromiser, who helped delay the Civil War by a number of years.  His desk is occupied by the senior Senator from Kentucky, currently Sen. Mitch McConnell.

One of my favorite desk traditions is the Candy Desk.  Starting in 1965, California Senator George Murphy started keeping his desk stocked with candy for his colleagues.  Since then it has been the responsibility of the Republican Senator who has the back row aisle desk closest to the heavily trafficked Republican cloakroom entrance to keep snacks handy.  In the 112th Congress that just ended. Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois occupied the candy desk and featured Mars, Milky Way, and Snickers bars, which are popular sweets from candy makers in his home state.

A sweet tradition!

A sweet tradition!




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Washington’s Farewell Address

Today, an old Senate tradition was observed, the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address.  The speech was originally a letter written by Washington toward the end of his first term as President.  He had been planning to step down, but he realized that there was so much animosity between his Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, that Washington chose to run for a second term instead.  He set the letter aside until he was nearing the end of his second term and was preparing to return to Mount Vernon.  The letter was published in numerous newspapers and eventually became known as his farewell address.

In the letter, Washington writes of the strength that the states derive from remaining united and of the threats to that unity that will appear both internally and internationally.  He writes of the need to focus on citizens as being Americans, rather than being members of a region, state, or locale, and to focus on the qualities that bring us together, rather than the qualities that divide us.  Washington also had strong reservations about the formation and existence of political parties.  He worried that these political factions would impede the work of the government and would promote the creation of factions between various groups and regions.  In support of the newly created constitutional government, Washington felt strongly that the government should be changed or shaped through amendments to the Constitution, rather than through the use of force.  France’s descent into the Reign of Terror during Washington’s second term undoubtedly shaped this sentiment.  Washington also felt that America’s geographic isolation should be used as an advantage in maintaining neutrality internationally.

In the dark days of the Civil War in 1862, on the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth, a tradition was started to read Washington’s letter in each of the chambers of Congress to commemorate Washington’s birthday, and to remind everyone of the principles on which our country was founded.  The tradition ended in the House in 1984, but it continues to be observed in the Senate.

The honor of reading the address alternates between the two parties, and this year it was Kelly Ayotte, the junior Senator from New Hampshire, who did the honors for the Republican Party.  (Last year was Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic senior Senator from the same state.)  Those of us watching on C-Span first noticed that the President Pro Tempore, Senator Patrick Leahy, was present for this formal occasion.  We then noticed that Senator Ayotte read the address from the desk where the official parliamentarian usually sits.  My interpretation was that she was not speaking for the Senate, she was speaking to the Senate.

For all that there are virtually no scientists among the Senators, they still firmly believe in documenting this tradition to its maximum extent.  Thus I know that a typical reading lasts about 45 minutes with the longest delivery savoring every word at 68 minutes, and the fastest rendition lasting a mere 39 minutes.  There is also a book in which the Senator reading the speech is invited to sign his or her name and perhaps a few comments.  Entries have expanded significantly over the years, and I particularly enjoyed the entries from “firsts,” such as Daniel Inouye or Carol Mosely Braun, who represented the first native islander and the first African American woman.  Many Senators also added thoughtful remarks of how Washington’s address remained relevant to topics that were currently under debate.  You can read more of the story and click on links to a scanned copy of the book at

I certainly found that as I was summarizing Washington’s comments for this post that his concerns about partisan politics and about focusing on regional identity rather than national identity still struck a chord.  The tradition obviously touches those who are privileged to deliver the address.  If only its effect lasted more than 45 minutes.






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NOAA 101

I recently attended a briefing called NOAA 101, which was an introduction to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  My sense was that the session was intended to educate new Congressional staffers, but the cynic in me recognized that it was held just as budget season was about to start.  Still, it was very well done, and since it was presented in a room in the Capitol Visitors Center, it was convenient for staffers from both sides of the Hill to attend. As usual, the Fellows were well-represented.

I have come to realize that prior to my fellowship, my awareness of various government agencies came down to a black-and-white analysis of, “Oh, they do science, so they’re cool!” vs. “They don’t do science, so I’m not that interested.”  My experiences haven’t really changed that initial analysis, but I’m learning much more about exactly what kind of science is done at each of the cool agencies.

NOAA states the scope of its mission as “from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor.”  There’s obviously room for quite a bit of science there, but it was fascinating to learn just how many ways NOAA contributes to science, service, and stewardship.

The National Weather Service is one of NOAA’s missions, and their data underpins ALL private weather information.  Regardless of whether the forecast is coming from the local paper, the television station, or, they are all interpreting data supplied by the National Weather Service.  That information encompasses both weather and climate.  As the speaker explained, “What do I wear today?” is about weather and the conditions on any particular day.  All the clothes in your closet are about climate, the long term average and extreme conditions that you are most likely to encounter in your location.

NOAA and NASA often work jointly when dealing with satellites.  In addition to the weather satellites, NOAA also monitors the activity of the sun through its space weather prediction center.  The ACE satellite is between the sun and the Earth, and it functions as a weather buoy.  Sunspots will affect the Earth’s magnetic field like ringing a bell, and that extra resonance is enough to bring down the power grid.  The satellite provides a 15 minute warning to grid managers to take action to prevent the grid from going down.

Hurricane Sandy provided an excellent case study of the responsibilities that NOAA integrates as part of its mission.  Their first contribution was obviously the forecast of the storm’s path, since that influenced what areas prepared for action and what areas did not need to.  The relatively tight forecast cone meant that the Carolinas did spend effort on preparing for a storm that was in no danger of approaching their area.  Historically, nearly all storms like Sandy turn right and head out to sea, so I think NOAA was justifiably proud to have accurately predicted Sandy’s unusual left turn, which resulted in the widespread impacts on the mainland.

Forecasting Sandy’s impact did not just require weather satellites.  NOAA employed hurricane hunter airplanes to fly into the storm to collect data, and their national ocean models were used to predict storm surge and ocean inundation.  That information was used to determine where first responders could be pre-positioned most effectively close to where they would be needed, but not directly threatened for needing a rescue themselves.  National Hurricane personnel from NOAA are always embedded with FEMA during storm preparations, and an additional 15 NOAA emergency meteorologists were distributed at the county level to be resources during planning and response.

After a storm, the sediment in a port or river may move significantly.  The Coast Guard is responsible for positioning channel buoys, but NOAA does the survey to determine water depth and either locate or ensure that a channel is safe for ships.  Immediately after Sandy, NOAA surveyed about 65% of the storm-affected waters to re-establish shipping as rapidly as possible. Planes carrying LIDAR, sometimes known as laser-radar, are used extensively in geography and meteorology for mapping, and in the case of Sandy, coastlines that had been previously mapped using LIDAR could be rapidly resurveyed after the storm to obtain swift damage assessments.  The old fashioned method required someone to go out and look, which is obviously much more time and personnel intensive.

Another theme in NOAA’s activities is resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies.  They provide information so that resources can be managed effectively.  For example, by working with fishermen, they can determine the most effective strategy for managing threatened fisheries so that fishermen can still make a living safely but the fishery can regain its health.  Florida and Texas receive forecasts for coastal blooms of algae every two weeks in the summer.  NOAA also works with social scientists to explore how people perceive risk and how we respond to it.  Those understandings are obviously extremely important in understanding why some people choose not to evacuate in the path of a storm.

I was also impressed that NOAA is extremely collaborative.  Their philosophy is to “measure once, use many times,” since it is the collection of data that is generally the most expensive part of an endeavor.  Thus weather data are obtained from a combination of regular weather satellites, Department of Defense weather satellites, and European weather satellites to get more complete coverage of the Earth.  Likewise, NOAA outfits commercial ships with instruments to collect ocean and weather data in the Arctic since the ships will be making the trip anyway.

I often fall into the habit of focusing on government agencies as being all about bureaucracies, but the briefing gave me a great appreciation for how much NOAA is involved in using science to improve my daily life as well as to help deal with managing resources.  As the speaker explained their strategy, “Real people, real information, real decisions, and real world.”



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Hearings and Briefings

The two major methods of educating Members of Congress and their staffs are briefings and hearings.  Since these two terms come up regularly, I thought it would be helpful to explore the similarities and differences.  (I think it was Ms. Edison, my 11th grade English teacher who taught me the “compare and contrast” essay.  Who knew it could come in handy after all this time?)

Hearings have been in the news lately in terms of confirming President Obama’s nominations for various Cabinet-level positions or in the exploration of accountability in attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi.  A hearing is held by a committee, and it is generally a fact-finding opportunity for the Members of Congress.  In the rooms for Committees such as Armed Services, Judiciary, and Environment and Public Works, the Members sit in a horseshoe of seats with a table or desk facing them for the person or people testifying.  There is usually a bench immediately behind each member to have a staff member perched; the rest of the staff, the press, and the general public sit in chairs behind the witness(es).  Most of the hearings this month have included overflow space in a nearby committee room with a TV feed of the proceedings.

Each committee has different rules for hearings.  There are nearly always opening statements by the Chair and Ranking Member; sometimes those are followed by opening statements from the other members present.  The testimony follows, which is often also provided in writing in advance.  The witnesses are held to a certain time limit for their testimony, since the focus of the hearing is actually the question and answer time.  Once the testimony has finished, the Senators are each allocated time, usually five or seven minutes, to ask questions and receive answers.  The staff  have usually looked over the witnesses’ written statements and have provided a variety of questions for their Senators to choose from.  That variety is important because the order of questioning is generally Chair, Ranking member, then by seniority of the Senators present before the gavel falls at the start of the hearing, followed by the order of arrival, but always alternating between the majority and minority parties.  Yes, that sounds terribly complex, but eventually you get the hang of it.  If your Senator is far down the line of questioners, then it is important to have some very creative questions since other Senators are likely to have taken your best ones by the time it’s your Senator’s turn.

The tone at hearings can be anything from mildly contentious to seriously combative.  In many ways, hearings are quite similar to faculty meetings in academia.  The motivations for asking questions in a faculty meeting can include wanting to learn the answer to a question or wanting everyone else to hear the answer that the questioner already knows.  Some people like making statements and having a few minutes of time in the spotlight.  In those cases, it can be a challenge to figure out exactly what the question is!  In other cases, a question is designed to score points off the witness; this strategy was the subject of several video clips during the Committees on Armed Forces hearings about Benghazi with Secretary Clinton.

Not all Senators come to all hearings either, unless the hearing is likely to be televised.  Often Senators will come in and out as their juggle their multiple overlapping schedule commitments. It’s the job of the Senator’s staff to make sure that he or she is in place in time to get his or her turn asking questions.

As a side note, in the past I’ve compared Senate offices to sports bars because of all the televisions.  That was extremely evident during Secretary Clinton’s appearances before the Senate and House committees.  In my office, we did learn that it was important that all of the televisions be tuned to the same channel or the slight time delays in the sound created a stadium-like echo in our room.  I’m sure offices around the Senate resounded with cheering or booing as plays were attempted and points were scored by the hearing participants.  Our office certainly had its raucous moments.  If you think my idea of entertainment has been seriously warped by my experiences this year, I tend to agree.  But back to my essay.

In contrast to hearings, which focus on questions from Senators and whose proceedings are on the record, briefings focus on educating the Congressional staff on a certain issue, and those proceedings are not recorded.  Briefings can be organized by Committees, which are a bit more formal, but they may also be organized by nearly any outside group as a means of conveying their message.  I believe the limitation is that if the briefing is held on the Hill, then it must be at least nominally sponsored by a member of Congress.  Briefings are often also held in Committee rooms, but the table for the speakers faces the audience, and the Members’ chairs are empty.

I have gone to some excellent briefings, and I have gone to some highly questionable briefings.  I have learned about the ongoing drought from last year, its impacts, and future projections.  I went to NOAA 101, which was an introduction to that agency, and which I’ll write about in the future.  I also went to a briefing by a number of trade groups who were unhappy with a particular regulation, and I confess that as a scientist, it pained me to listen to their arguments which were passionate, but seemed somewhat lacking in reliable facts.  My favorite comment was that when a mixture contained 10 % of a particular ingredient, that combination resulted in 3% oxygen in the mix.  Then the proportion was bumped up to 15% of that ingredient, the oxygen increased to 5-6%.  Ummm, not by my math.  So some briefings involve very reliable information, and some are more dubious.

In the healthcare area, there are numerous briefings to highlight particular conditions or diseases.  I confess to a small amount of jealousy that our healthcare Fellow seems to return from lunch briefings having had snacks!  She often snags a chocolate chip cookie for me, but I just don’t understand why people in the energy and environment sector don’t seem prone to think about staffers’ stomachs.  I obviously didn’t choose my specialty field using the right parameters.

I went to an outstanding climate change briefing sponsored by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which featured four Ph.D. scientists to discuss climate change from the perspectives of atmosphere, weather, oceans, and public health.  The requisite cadre of Fellows was present, and we were all quite amused by Senator Boxer’s enthusiasm at having FOUR doctors present!  They were introduced as, “our first doctor,” “our second doctor” and so forth.  The Fellows, Ph.D.-holders all, just smirked at each other.




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The State of the Union

The State of the Union address last night was watched by the Fellows last night with all the focus of a championship bowl game.  I, myself, took a cab home after having dinner with a friend rather than using the cheaper but longer option of the Metro.  I exchanged texts with one of my fellow Fellows, who was also heading home with all haste, trying to make sure she didn’t miss anything important.  We each made it with time to spare so we got to watch the President’s entrance as well.

Preparations for the SOTU, as is has been called in all the papers this week, were pursued with the same attention to detail used for the Inauguration, but since the Capitol Police are still recovering from last month’s grand event, it was a relief that with everything inside the building, there were far fewer random events to consider.  There was a walk-through for the support staff on Monday night, particularly so that the camera-people would have practice walking backwards through the space as they followed the President’s entrance.  Like the Inauguration, visitors and dignitaries were stashed in every possible space in the Capitol.  The Senators assembled in their chamber at 8:20 and walked over together.  I also learned that for both the Inauguration and the SOTU, the Supreme Court Justices gathered in the old Supreme Court Chamber that the Court occupied until their new building was finally built in 1935.  That seemed quite appropriate.

The House Chamber seats 450 normally, which is comfortable for its 435 members. The addition of 100 Senators plus the Justices and the Joint Chiefs meant that extra seating had to be squeezed in wherever possible.  The Colorado delegation (the Senators and Representatives) traditionally try to sit together, but that often proves to be a challenge in the chaos of the chamber.  Everyone knows the aisle that the President will enter and exit through, so there are always some people who come early to stake out those prime aisle seats to get that moment of face time, better known as TV time, with the President.

The gallery is filled with the guests.  Each Senator and Representative was also allowed to bring a single guest, and that constituent often represents a cause or issue that is important to the Member of Congress.  Obviously President Obama used this strategy as well to personalize the logistical challenges of voting in the past election and the victims of gun violence by highlighting some of his own guests who were present.

When the speech began, so did the texting frenzy between me and another Fellow.  I started it by texting him when I spotted his Senator getting a TV moment with the President.  That turned into a running commentary on the topics that were mentioned and how they were mentioned.  I was particularly excited when the topic of national disasters came up, and “states having the worst wildfires in their histories last summer” came up.  That was Colorado!  (The return text was, “Down, Girl.”)  My office had also read the expectation of the executive order on cybersecurity coming out this morning, so I was intrigued to hear that topic mentioned.  My texting friends additionally clued me in that the green ribbons were in honor of the Sandy Hook victims.  I confess I had wondered that so many people were supporting climate change action, which was my first thought.

About half way through the speech, I checked my Senate mail on my Blackberry, and I discovered that shortly before the event began, I received an “embargoed” copy of the speech.  That meant that it was not to be shared until after it had finished.  Still, it meant that I could check the progress and have an idea of how much more was left.

I watched the President’s departure in part to practice my Senator-spotting abilities.  Thus I was extra excited to see Senator Bennet get his moment of face time with the President.  Senator Bennet had been chosen to be part of the escort group, so I figured that moment was his due, but  it was still pretty thrilling.


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Congressional Research Service (CRS)


During orientation in September, I was enchanted to learn about the Congressional Research Service (CRS).  Created by Congress with the idea that decisions should be made based on reliable information, this group works exclusively for Congress and is housed on Capitol Hill in the nearby Library of Congress.   CRS is strictly non-partisan and confidential, so they will provide information for members and staff of both the House and the Senate from personal offices or from committees.  The confidentiality extends even to if one staff member calls up and asks a question that has already been asked by another staff member in the same office, the CRS contact won’t mention the redundancy.

As part of orientation, the combined group of Congressional and Executive Branch Fellows received a half day introduction to CRS, but then since the Congressionals were going to be working with CRS much more closely, we got an additional full day of training.  I remember particularly that we had lunch with some of analysts, and my table cheerfully pumped our analysts for information about particular Congressional offices since we had yet to go through Placement.  One of the most interesting insights I received was that some Members of Congress obviously have a strong bias toward smart staffs.  Former Senator Hilary Clinton and Former Congressman Sherrod Boehlert both fell into this category.  The analyst said that if a staff member called up and was identified as being from one of these two offices, she could accurately assume that the staff member was smart.  That assumption is apparently not universally true.

CRS is made up of analysts and attorneys, each of whom has a portfolio of issues which they learn and research in great depth.  From my work computer, I can access a vast array of reports that CRS has created to provide general background on topics of interest.  When I want to ask a more specific question or learn about a topic for which there is no appropriate report, I call the main number and make my selection from the menu.  If I’m from a Congressional office and I need immediate assistance, I choose one selection.  If I from a Congressional office and I don’t need immediate assistance, I press a different button.  That immediate assistance is not an understatement.  Whenever either chamber of Congress is in session, there will be some group of analysts who are available to answer questions, no matter how late at night.  As one analyst explained to me, she once got a phone call from a Member of Congress who she’d been working with on an ongoing basis, and the caller needed an immediate answer.  The analyst replied, “I can give you my five minute answer, or I can call you back with my one hour answer.”  The Member responded, “Give me the five minute answer,” and the analyst answered based on the information in her own head.  She then explained what she would look at if she could spend an hour to look up a few details, the Member decided that aspect of the question wasn’t important, and that solved the problem.  Sometimes action in a hearing or on the Floor is moving so swiftly that indeed an hour is too long to get an answer.

In addition to topic areas, there are a number of CRS analysts who are specialists in Congress itself.  Having received a half day crash course by CRS during Placement about how Congress works, I took the opportunity in November to take the two day Legislative Institute that CRS offers to staffers to go into more depth on Congressional procedures.  Perhaps it is that I have little background to build on in this area, but I find that learning Congressional procedures from CRS analysts tends to feel like drinking from a fire hose.  If I open up my brain its maximum bandwidth and maintain absolute focus, I can keep up with the information flow.  At one point, I lost focus for a mere ten seconds or so, and by the time I checked back in, the man’s words sounded like, “term term jargon jargon jargon term term…”  I enjoyed the challenge, but my brain got a really good workout.

The Legislative Institute was a wonderful experience, so I’ll share a few more stories about it.  The staffers taking the course were separated into two groups, so that the Senate staff learned about unanimous consent, amendment trees, the Congressional Record, and procedures important in our lives, while the House staff learned their information.  At the end of our first day, our group got to do an exercise as though we were committee members using Senate procedure to agree on rules for how our committee would work.  We were divided up somewhat arbitrarily into a majority party and a minority party, but our seniorities were determined by how much experience we had on the Hill.  Each party caucused, i.e. had a meeting, to decide on how we wanted to try to amend the draft committee rules that we had been given.  We then met as the full committee and started to negotiate.  I got the experience of being in on the minority side and having to use persuasion rather than superior numbers to get what we wanted.  It was actually rather impressive how often the appeal to move forward in a spirit of bipartisanship resulted in members of the majority party voting our way.  The CRS analyst who ran the exercise for us helped us translate our intentions into the appropriate language, which is NOT easy.  Toward the end, we started stretching our limits, proposing some outrageous amendments just to see how that affected the dynamics and how many different rules we could try out.  Our CRS analyst was obviously delighted with our enthusiasm.

One of the traits I’ve observed in many of the analysts is that they are amazing teachers.  In my experience, the best teachers are adept at evaluating a student and then teaching material to exactly the level of the student’s comprehension.  Often new or inexperienced teachers have only developed a single way of explaining a concept, and they are not able to adapt that explanation to simplify or to elevate the level based on the background of the audience.  In contrast, at the beginning of a conversation with a CRS analyst, I will generally explain that I’m a AAAS Fellow whose previous job was as a chemistry professor.  The analyst promptly ratchets up the level at which he or she is explaining and delivers information to me at exactly the right speed and complexity so I get the most complete understanding possible.

Here are some examples of the types of questions that I’ve asked:  “How is a certain industry reacting to the new rules that limit emissions?”  “How has the [insert name of federal program] received funding?  “Can you give me a crash course on [insert issue.]”  “Have you read [this paper], and if so, does it seem valid based on what else you know of the field?”  “What cool things did you learn [on a certain topic] at the conference you were at last week?”

Sometimes the answer easily fits in an email.  Sometimes a phone call is better since I can ask follow up questions to get a bit more depth.  On several occasions, I have asked for briefings when I was trying to get up to speed on a new topic.  In that case, one of the CRS analysts will come to my office, or I’ll go over to their office in the Library of Congress to get an intensive tutorial that gives me a broad knowledge of a topic.  I did that last one this past week and had two analysts sit with me and walk me through the basic issues in forestry, an area that I’m starting to learn about.  They spent an hour and a half stuffing my head with information, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also nearly learned the hard way that the tunnel from the Library of Congress back to the Capitol Visitor’s Center closes at 4:20; I was the last person who sprinted through!

Also this past week, I set up a call with CRS on a different topic.  It was mostly chasing down a loose end to be certain that there wasn’t anything important to be learned or done, but the analyst who contacted me suggested that the question was at the junction of multiple analysts’ areas of expertise, and he wanted to get the lot of them on the phone with me.  Thus, I ended up on speaker phone with FOUR CRS analysts all working to answer the details of my question.  One of my fellow Fellows recently commented that when you are a nerd in one area, it’s much easier to “nerd out” in a new area as well, and that’s what occurred in this conversation.  My question happened to overlap with some material that I teach in my environmental chemistry course, so I continued to ask questions just because I was interested.  The CRS folks have such an incredible depth of knowledge in their areas that they always seem to enjoy getting into the nitty gritty details, so they were obviously happy to help.  Thus at one point, I asked a very specific and very technical question.  I glanced up and realized that the guy who sits in front of me was looking at me with an expression akin to horror.  I usually keep my nerdiness under wraps in the office, but I didn’t think it was that much of a secret.  I said to my coworker, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m a nerd.” From the other end of the phone I got a chorus from the analysts of, “We love it! Be nerdy!”

Just one of the many reasons I love CRS.

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