When talking to past Fellows, each has an elevator speech, or a short story to be told about, “What did you accomplish during your Fellowship year?” The saga of the budget will certainly be one of mine. You can read the stories of the two days of intense activity in other posts, but I’ve now had a bit of time to reflect on the whole process, and I wanted to share those thoughts.
Oddly, although it was important to go through the process since the Senate hadn’t passed a budget in four years, ultimately the impact was far more symbolic than actual. Although the Senate and the House have each passed budgets at this point, they are so far apart that there is unlikely to be a conference to try to reconcile the two documents into one mutually acceptable version.
The whole amendment process was also interesting. Relatively few of the amendments actually pertained to the budget in terms of adding funds to one account or subtracting funds from another. The majority of the amendments were non-binding and took a taste of the Senate’s sentiment on an issue. Many of them created “Deficit Neutral Reserve Funds,” which basically suggest that if a project is authorized later, then money should be found in the budget to fund that priority. (We got very tired of typing “Deficit Neutral Reserve Funds” on so many vote recs, but knowing how tired the Senator was going to be by midway through the vote-a-rama, we didn’t use ANY abbreviations that weren’t spelled out first.)
I confess that even I’m not entirely sure of the ramifications, if any, of the amendments and the budget that we passed, but it was certainly a bonding experience for everyone involved. For several amendments, I contacted the relevant staff member in a Republican office and requested a summary of the amendment or a list of talking points. Without fail, I received what I asked for swiftly and cheerfully. I had the sense that regardless of our party affiliations, we were all going through this challenging experience together. I also appreciated the community of Fellows, who I knew were sharing my experience in the many personal offices in the Senate. When we had lunch together on Monday, the conversation bubbled with our various roles in the different offices.
My father sent me the following information the he collected from the Daily Kos blog, and I will share it as he sent it. “The term “vote-orama” officially entered the Senate lexicon in 1977, according to the Senate historian’s office. By 2009, it had become ridiculous enough to prompt a hearing to demand changes. At that time, Democratic and Republican Budget Committee leaders lamented a process that had gone off the rails. In 2006, senators submitted 87 amendments. In 2007, there were 91, in 2008, 113. This year, there were more than 500.”
The final totals were that the vote-orama voting lasted for 13.5 hours. There were roll call votes on 44 amendments, at an average of 10 minutes each, and voice votes on additional amendments for a total of 101 amendments passed during that time period.
I wrote a total of 38 complete vote recommendations over the course of two days, 16 the first day, and 22 the second, and I contributed pieces to several others. Of all those, eight came to a vote. Some amendments that fell into my lap were on issues that I understood only vaguely, so I needed to research both the pros and cons to be able to provide the relevant information. There were a number, however, that I may have needed to read closely, but that I already understood the various issues involved, and I could write everything I needed just by using my existing knowledge. Particularly having just done a vote rec on rare earth metals from my existing knowledge, I stepped back mentally for a moment, surveyed my work, and had a sense of, “Holy Cow! Where did that all come from?” My breadth of knowledge has certainly expanded enormously since I arrived in Washington.
I also gained an appreciation for all the meetings I have taken since I started in the office. When I wanted to consider how a particular amendment might affect state residents, there were times when the answer came directly from a conversation I’d had with a constituent. I was pleased that their efforts to reach out and tell their stories were indeed contributing to how I saw an issue.
There was also a bit of an “ah ha!” aspect to the experience. I realize that no matter how much I learn about politics, my own training means that my starting point is always the scientific foundation of an issue. From there, I add in political, social, or economic factors, but the science always comes first in my thought process. That is the purpose of my entire fellowship program and the reason for having scientists on the Hill. We ensure that science is not an afterthought in making decisions; it is there from the start. I came out of the three day budget marathon with a huge sense of personal accomplishment and that this was the contribution that I had come to Congress to make.