Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Budget Wrap-up

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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.

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The Budget Vote-a-rama Part II

Friday, March 22, 2013

I had a brief chat with my Beloved Husband part way through the second day of the Senate Budget Vote-a-rama, and he asked me if I was giving a Facebook update or Twitter feed.  I try not to use social media at work, so here is the general timeline of what my day looked like on the second day of the Senate Budget legislation.

8:50 AM.  I arrive at the office.  It’s critical to get into the building before 9 AM when the security lines get very long from the rush of staffers all arriving simultaneously.  Happily, my two favorite security guards are working the door this morning because they are the most efficient team I’ve seen.

8:59 AM  The staff have pretty much all arrived, and everyone has brought provisions for what is expected to be a long day and night.  Today’s menu:

Dunkin Donuts Coffee

Dunkin Donuts Munchkins (although not enough chocolate ones)

Stop n’ Shop M&M and chocolate chip cookies

A huge box of individual bags of potato chips

Stop n’ Shop Cinnamon knots

Starbucks Coffee

Clementines (a big box)

Girl Scout Cookies (Samosas)

Laura’s Vote-a-rama brownies.  Apparently turning on the oven qualifies an item as “homemade” even if they are from a box mix

The supplies are kept in what is known as “the spot,” which is on the marble mantle in one of the central rooms on the opposite side of the hall.  I think across the hall a good place for all the food.

9:00 AM  The Senate comes to order and debate continues.  As you may recall, there are 50 hours of debate on a budget resolution in the Senate, and we started on Wednesday night.  By Unanimous consent, they considered the clock to run overnight.  Senator  King from Vermont is presiding.  I dive back into vote recommendations, having written 16 the day before and starting with 10 amendments on my list.

9:15 AM  The amendments are into the 500 numbers.  The first amendment on the budget was 136, so we are around 375 amendments filed.  The interns are struggling to get caught up with transferring the information from the Senate amendment tracker into the shared Bennet office spreadsheet.  The interns had worked until 6 PM on Thursday night, and then one of our front office staffers stayed for several hours after that to keep up with the work, but there’s still a backlog from after she left around 8:30 PM.

10:30 AM  One of the Legislative Assistants (LAs) decides to transport most of the sweets back to our room and places them on the marble mantle right next to my desk.  I am NOT on board with this plan.  Not!  Well, OK, I’ll have just one brownie…

Keep writing vote recs.

10:57 AM  The number of filed amendments goes over 400.  Still more vote recs.  There are so many it’s hard to stay focused on one to the end and not get distracted by starting another one.

11:00 AM  We vote on a batch of six amendments.  Sen. Heinrich (D-NV) presiding.

12:15 PM  We hit 450 total amendments.  Focus, focus.  Eat lunch while writing vote recs.

12:30 PM  Two hours of debate scheduled before the Vote-a-rama begins.  Sen. Heitkamp (D-ND) presiding.

1:00 PM  It finally penetrates that my LA is up to his eyeballs in the details of dropping a completely separate bill today.  If it doesn’t get done today, it can’t be done for the next two weeks while we are in recess.  Thus my LA has given me the ultimate compliment that I can handle the huge job of dealing with the vote recs while he’s juggling another huge responsibility.  I’m very honored… and now a little more stressed.

1:15 PM  I give up on my usual resolution to avoid caffeine and make myself some caffeinated tea.

2:00 PM  Yesterday, I wrote 16 vote recommendations in 12 hours.  Today, I’ve already written 18.  They get easier as I go since many are on related topics so I only have to tweak the arguments instead of starting from scratch.   Still, each has to be framed to match the amendment as it is worded rather than the general topic.

2:35 PM On the Senate Floor,  debate time is done, the Vote-a-rama is scheduled to begin anytime.  In the meantime, a quorum call starts while the leadership tries to agree on what amendments are in the first batch.  I eventually learned that the Senate doesn’t use terms as normal as “batch.”  A set of amendments is referred to as a “tranche.”

3:00 PM  We get a tentative list of the first tranche of amendments.  With 500+ amendments in the system, two or three of the amendments we will vote on haven’t even been filed yet.

3:01 PM  Included in the first tranche are several side-by-side amendments.  These are amendments that address the same issue from different perspectives.   If it were Alice in Wonderland, one character might say, “We should paint the white roses blue.”  The Red Queen might be in favor of painting the roses, but she definitely wouldn’t choose blue as the color.  Thus there might be two amendments:

Amendment #1:  We should paint the white roses blue

Amendment #2:  We should paint the white roses red

People can vote for either, both, or neither.

3:30 PM We get the list of amendments in the first tranche, 11 of which are first degree and 3 are second degree (amendments to amendments, thank you Congressional Research Service for training me so well!).  Five have numbers over 600, so it’s a scramble to get the vote recs prepped.  At this point, everyone in the office is a veteran, and vote recs are completely undaunting.  There is still an adrenaline scramble to assemble the information quickly, but it passes just as quickly after our part is done.

3:45 PM  Start voting on the first tranche of amendments.  Senator Murphy (D-CT) is presiding.  On the schedule:

One amendment (passed by voice vote)

It looks like a total of 14 amendments, although there are 40 minutes of debate scheduled in after #8..  Each amendment gets called up, there is a minute of debate on each side, and then ten minutes of voting.  We receive regular emails each time the voting begins on a new amendment.

5:20 PM  One of the LAs reads today’s news and notices an obituary for the author of, “Things Fall Apart.”  That seems rather appropriate for the day.  Senator Kaine (D-VA) is presiding.  Still voting on the amendments in the first tranche.

5:42 PM  The brownies are gone, as are the cinnamon knots.  There are four clementines remaining, and the cookies are going fast.  I feel very popular and loved since I am surrounded by people.  They may just be after the remaining cookies, but I can pretend.

5:43 PM  One of the press staff enters the office and announces, “Vote-a-ramas are very boring.”  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s a scramble when we get a new list of amendments, but in between, it’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.”

6:15 PM  The office takes a foosball stress relief break.   Yes, we have a foosball table in the middle of the LA room

6:19 PM  We are in the midst of a 40 minute debate on the Marketplace Fairness Act, which addresses whether internet merchants should have to collect a sales tax.  This was a particularly fascinating debate since it was absolutely not divided by party lines.  There were senators from both parties on each side, and the debate was excellent at exploring the issue.  We should have more of those.

Amendment 675 has been filed, so that’s 540 amendments in the system for this bill.

Senator Mo Cowan, John Kerry’s replacement from Massachusetts is presiding.  Senator Cowan wears bow-ties, which I like, and in spite of his temporary status, he is giving the job everything he’s got.

6:55 PM  We get the next tranche of possible amendments.  None for me.

7:15 PM  My LA suggests that there’s nothing more I can do, so I’m welcome to go home.  Right around that time, we get the actual next tranche of amendments, and there’s an amendment that was in my area.  My LA said, “I’m on it!” and I was pretty thrilled to be able to say, “There’s a draft in the system!”

7:30 PM  I exit the building and pass a staffer entering with a stack of five pizzas.  It’s going to be a long night.

The night of the Vote-a-rama

The night of the Vote-a-rama

The rest of the timing I will summarize from the email traffic I read the next morning.

9:00 PM  An email exchange among the Fellows seeks to identify if there’s any coffee available.

11:00 PM  A second email exchange among the Fellows starts with a plaintive, “Is anyone else still here?”  Indeed there were quite a few Fellows still in the building, although the House fellows were smug that they were not at work.

12:01 AM  One of the fellows emails that the staff gallery overlooking the Senate floor is open, and several Fellows gather to watch the action.

Multiple tranches of amendments sweep through the system, more and more of which are addressed by voice vote rather than roll call votes which take 10 minutes each.

4:56 AM  The Senate budget passes by a margin of 50-49

 

 

 

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The Budget Vote-a-rama, Day I

Russell Senate Office Building where I work

Russell Senate Office Building where I work

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I have no doubt that the story of this past week is one that I will tell often after my fellowship is over.  It was thrilling to be in the middle of it and to be a significant contributor.

Passing a budget involves special rules in the Senate.  First, once the budget bill is brought to the floor, there are a maximum of 50 hours of debate, and filibusters are not allowed.  That means that a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass any given amendment.  I may have mentioned that staff are not allowed to use blackberries or cell phones on the Senate Floor, but there was a special negotiation to allow people to use calculators.  It felt a bit like negotiations for a chemistry quiz, and I really wanted to yell out, “No!  Make them do long division!” even though the budget is really just addition and subtraction

I now have a better understanding of the difference between a Congressional budget and a Presidential Budget.  The Senate’s budget is less than 100 pages long and provides funds in broad categories such as spending on energy or on the environment.  It’s the President’s budget that breaks down the broad categories into specific line items such as funding for the Department of Energy and programs within that Department.  So NASA, NSF, and Amtrak all have specific amounts in the President’s budget but not in the Congressional budget.

The budget process has given me an even greater appreciation for the Legislative Assistant (LA) who is my “boss.”  Last week, he announced out of the blue, “It’s time to learn to write vote recommendations.”  I was a bit intimidated by the process since I feel that I will probably never know everything I need to, but it was an excellent strategy to give me some practice in advance of the budget.  I got more practice on vote recs the day before the budget started as my LA gave me a list of potential topics for amendments and highlighted ones that would be my responsibility.  He suggested that I start writing some initial drafts, and that assignment improved my process and grew my confidence.

One of the particular challenges of the budget this time around is that we haven’t had one for the past four years.  That means that since Senator Bennet was elected, there has not been a budget.  Many offices are in the same boat, but thankfully, the newer staffs often include a few folks who have been through a budget in a previous office so there is some experience to go around.  Once the 50 hours of debate are done, the process culminates in a vote-a-rama of rapid fire voting on amendments until everyone gets tired and agrees to stop and vote on the final budget.  I know I’ve described a vote-a-rama before, but at that time, I didn’t understand the scope of a truly epic vote-a-rama, the speed of the voting, and the vast number of amendments involved.

The budget came to the floor on Wednesday night to start the 50 hours of debate, and about a dozen amendments were filed by the time I left in the early evening.  I arrived on Thursday morning and started working through the 70 or 80 amendments in the system to identify which pertained to me or to my LA.  One of the other LAs was coordinating the organization of the work for all the office, and he had created a shared spreadsheet that everyone could work on simultaneously.  Once the interns arrived, they started transferring the information from the Senate’s online amendment tracker into the office spreadsheet, and they kept it up all day until they left, doing a magnificent job.

The list of amendments keeps growing.  The amendment numbering system starts with #1 at the beginning of the Congress and then starts counting up from there for the next two years.  Amendments also get tagged with the name of the Senator who submitted them, although there are often co-sponsors on each document. The first budget amendment was #136, and by mid-morning, we were over #236.  I had chatted with a fellow Fellow the night before, and she said that a veteran of her office suggested there would be a minimum of 150 amendments.  When we hit that number, I thought perhaps the pace would slow down.

But the amendments keep coming.  150 of them now, up to #286.  I had plunged in and started to write vote recs, which initially were rather extensive, but with practice, I learned to focus on the key factors and be more concise.  It was pointed out to me that with the anticipated pace and number of the votes, it was important to be clear and not confusing.  Often I needed to research a topic to understand the pros and cons of the exact wording of the amendment, but it gave me great pleasure when I could write an amendment based solely on what I had already learned from my fellowship experiences.

And the amendments keep coming.  We’re into the mid- 300 numbers having passed 200 amendments.  A few years ago, I worked on a project for the American Chemical Society that involved an online chemistry calendar.  I wrote over 100 essays of 250-400 words on chemistry topics ranging from ibuprofen to paint pigments to gymnasts’ chalk to hair dyes.  That project taught me enormous discipline in my writing because I had to squeeze in time around the rest of my work to get the writing done.  Writer’s block was a luxury I could not afford, and that experience turned out to be vital training for writing in Congress.  I wish I could give this experience to my college students who so often get tied up because they don’t know how to do a job perfectly or because they get distracted.  Personal crises were just not an option.

The relentless pace of amendments doesn’t slow, and we are now over 250 amendments.  I have so many windows open on my computer that it is hard to keep track of them all.  I need the Senate amendment tracker, the Bennet amendment tracker, a pdf of the budget bill, my email, and the current vote rec as a minimum, but I also need the phone numbers for the main desks of every Senate office to call for information, emails from committees, leadership, or advocacy groups with background information or talking points on certain amendments, and usually several browser windows for my research.  If I lose focus or get distracted while popping between windows, it can take a little while before I remember what I was looking for.

I get my first amendment with a number in the 400’s, but some of the boxes for vote recs are getting filled in.  The Bennet Fellows have paused to take a walk around the loop of our building to take a short break.  One of my fellow Fellows in a different Senator’s office is holding down the energy and environment fort alone since her LA left a week earlier, and she emails me to ask the difference between two similar amendments.  Dinner isn’t looking likely, so I join two other fellow Fellows for a snack of frozen yogurt.  The other two are staffing a committee and thus are not immersed in amendments and vote recs.  Crazy as the day is, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Back to the amendment tracker, and we are over 300 filed amendments.  I’m starting to get into a flow, and I’m holding steady at half of my vote recs written.  This morning when I only had two amendments on my list, that meant that one was written and I was working on a second.  When I was up to ten amendments on my list, I had written five.  By the end of the day, I was over 25 amendments on my list, but several filed as duplicates helped me get over the halfway point so I produced 16 vote recs and only had about 10 remaining on my list.

And the amendments keep coming.  The valiant interns have gone home, but one of our magnficent front office staff has stayed to continue entering amendments into the office tracker.  I’ve been holding my own with the pace all day, and now I start taking a second look at the list to figure out what I can possibly stretch to take on to free up other people.  One of the recommendations I wrote in the morning had initially been assigned to someone else, and I was concerned that I might have stepped on his toes.  Now I understand why he just laughed.

By the time I leave, there are 350 amendments in the system, and the Senate has voted on about six.  I’ve worked steadily all day and made excellent progress, but the Legislative Director has encouraged all of us to go home to be fresh for the marathon tomorrow.  What an amazing exhausting exhilarating brain-frying day!

 

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March Madness Meetings

March Madness in the Senate has little to do with coming out of the Union Station Metro and being handed a bracket for the basketball playoffs, which did actually happen to me.  No, March Madness refers to the unusually frenetic pace of meetings that has characterized this past month.

Meetings come in many different varieties.  At the top of the heap are constituent meetings, in which we learn about the concerns of the people who live in our state.  Most offices work extremely hard to make sure that we have time to meet with concerned constituents, whether they travel to DC or they contact one of the state offices.  When the Senator’s name appears in the news connected to a certain issue, we are also frequently contacted by lobbyists who want to make sure that we understand the perspective of their stakeholders.

We also request meetings.  When we are trying to write legislation, we will often reach out to the stakeholder groups to make sure that the resulting bill is the best possible fit for all parties and that it addresses everyone’s concerns.  It is important to think about what problem is being solved and who might be affected by it.  Likewise we will have meetings with staff from committees or with other offices who might consider co-sponsoring a bill.  I have also found personal meetings with the analysts at the Congressional Research Service to be invaluable for learning about or refining my understanding of a new policy area.

The intensity of March meetings relates to the generous number of conferences held in DC during this month, many of which include a day to visit representatives on the Hill.  Prior to these conferences, we receive meeting requests from many of our constituents who want to come to talk about the issues that are important to their groups.  People representing local governments, different healthcare or disease groups, or scientists concerned about cuts in research funding are just a few examples of our visitors.

There is a certain excitement to meeting with your senator or congressperson, but most commonly visitors will meet with staff.  I know that some years ago when I was first encouraged to set up meetings with my senator and congressman that I thought, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll get to meet with my actual elected official.”  I ended up meeting with staff members instead, but I have quickly learned that for talking details, the staff are actually ideal.  Senators cover a vast range of topics compared to staffers who have a narrower range that they dig into in great depth.  I can now find consolation for my original disappointment knowing that advocacy groups often go directly to staff members rather than requesting meetings with the head honcho.  I also understand that I visited in August when Congress is on recess, so my representatives were all home in Connecticut at the time anyway.

Still, there is certainly a magic to meeting with the senator, so many offices will try to provide an opportunity for constituents to interact directly with the senator.  In our office, that’s “Colorado Coffee” on Wednesday mornings when we are in session.  Because March Madness affects even our Colorado Coffee events, we have moved the event out of our conference room and into a committee hearing room down the hall.  Because most people let us know in advance that they are coming, we can make sure that the constituents talk to the staff closest to their interest areas, and one of our amazing schedulers helps make all of those connections.  For half of the hour of Colorado Coffee, constituents chat with staff about their issues.  During the second half, the Senator comes in, makes some remarks, and then spends some time responding to questions.  School groups will often take advantage of this opportunity to interact with the Senator, and often they will squeeze in time for a picture.

Given my choice, I would actually chose the craziness of days filled with meetings over days that have no meetings at all.  I find that the meetings provide variety in the day and make it go by faster.  I have especially enjoyed meeting with the constituents and hearing their stories.  I have found the residents of my adopted state to be resilient, creative, cooperative, and amazingly courageous in dealing with challenges. It is a true honor to receive their stories and be able to work with them this year.

 

 

 

 

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A Week of Voting

As a movie reality TV program, the Senate can span a multitude of genres.  Although comedy can crop up at the most unexpected times and some might view it as a horror/slasher show, this upcoming week promises to be a combination of high drama and fast-paced action.

As of last Monday, the tentative schedule had been to deal with the Continuing Resolution (CR) last week and the budget in this coming week.  The CR must be resolved before recess starts on March 25th since it is required to keep the government from shutting down on March 27th.  Not only does the Senate need to pass a bill, but there must also be time for the Senate and the House to reconcile their different versions and vote on the mutually approved version and get it to the President all before the deadline.  The CR didn’t get finished last week, so the Senate will be dealing with both bills all in the same week.  Usually, the Senators leave on Thursday night to go back to their states to see family and constituents over the weekend, but the staff have already been told not to make plans for Friday or Friday night.

Because the CR and the budget are bills that have strong momentum for getting passed, they are an ideal “vehicle” to attach other actions to that can get swept along and passed at the same time.  Those other actions come in the form of amendments.  In the House they are required to be “germane,” so they must directly relate to the base bill and they must not increase its scope.  In the Senate, there is no such requirement, so the Farm Bill might have transportation or cybersecurity provisions tacked on.  It can probably be argued that just about everything is germane to a large funding bill, however.  When the sequester hit, cuts were required across the board, giving administrators no ability to be strategic about where reduced funding might be less damaging.  Many of the amendments we are seeing are attempts from Senators to shift those cuts around to reduce the cuts on their own program priorities.

The CR bill arrived on the floor last week having been “reported out” of the Appropriations Committee.  Senators immediately started filing amendments to the bill, which is done by submitting your amendment language to the Bill Clerk.  Just filing an amendment doesn’t guarantee that it will be voted on.  Generally, a Senator will arrive on the floor, be recognized by the Presiding Officer, and “call up” an amendment that has been filed.  If there has already been discussion of one amendment, the Senator will ask for unanimous consent to set aside the previous amendment and call up the new one.  (For fans of Roberts’ Rules, yes, you can have multiple amendments flying around semi-simultaneously.  It takes mental juggling to an entirely new level.) Amendments can be killed through drafting errors, points of order, motions to table, or by being withdrawn.  They can be approved via unanimous consent, through voice vote, and through roll call vote.  Which amendments will receive votes is the subject of extensive negotiations and agreements that occur off the floor.

Meanwhile, back in the office, staffers monitor the floor action at all times through C-Span.  If the Legislative Director (LD) has to step out, he makes sure that someone is specifically assigned to watch the floor in case any votes are called, although we all try to keep an eye out for developments.  The staff also try to anticipate which amendments might receive votes because every vote requires a vote recommendation, or vote rec.

A vote rec is a one page summary (in 16 point font so it can be read without glasses!) prepared by the staff for the Senator that suggests how he or she should vote and why.  A vote rec includes

A summary of the issue

The arguments in favor

The arguments against

The impact of the amendment on state constituents

A history of the Senator’s votes on the issue (if relevant)

The way that relevant people such as the Majority Leader, Chairwoman of the committee, and the other senator from the state will vote.

I just started writing vote recs last week- the latest in a long series of tasks I’ve faced with a sense of, “I have no idea how to do this, so here goes nothing!”  I started on a pair of amendments that had been filed but hadn’t been called up, so there was a bit less pressure.  The staff of the office who offered the amendment will always be happy to send out a summary of the case in favor of the amendment, and often committee or majority staff will also send out fact sheets and recommendations for how senators should vote.  Since the entire vote rec must fit onto a single page, it is essential to summarize concisely and to select only the most important details for inclusion.

I’ve had a couple of people express surprise that the senators are not experts on all of the issues, but considering that both the CR and budget amendments may include anything from energy and environment to healthcare to gun control to transportation to funding for the space program to farm subsidies to White House tours, there’s no way that any one person can be an expert on all of those topics.  That’s why having a smart and hardworking staff is absolutely critical.  The staff  know the issues in depth and can compress onto a single page the very most important information required to make an informed decision on how to vote.

I got my first taste of the adrenaline rush of urgent vote recs last week when a senator came to the floor and called up an amendment we hadn’t anticipated.  The LD sent an email to my LA and I and asked that one of us start working on a vote rec for the amendment.  My LA was out at a meeting, so I dove in.  With no idea if a vote might be an hour away, a day away, or never happen, I attacked the project with all of the focus and speed I could muster.  I had no background information either in favor of or opposed to the amendment, but the LD pointed out that the senator currently on the floor was speaking about the amendment, so I could pick up my key points by listening to him.  Inevitably, the amendment, while within the general scope of my portfolio, was not something I had worked on previously, so a little rapid research on the actual issue had to be squeezed in as well.

One of the most important things I’ve had to learn is not to study an issue to death before I send the vote rec on to the LD for editing.  I need to get as close as I can in the time I’ve got, and then I know that my LA and the LD will add in the details that are currently outside my experience.  I was still pleased that in the final version of the vote rec, all of my original writing survived, and the differences were all in additional inserted information.

My training from last week will be invaluable for the upcoming action on the floor.  We anticipate an enormous number of amendments being filed and budgets notoriously conclude with a rapid-fire vote-a-rama towards the end, much like the end of a big fireworks show.  The staff in my office is magnificent about pitching in to help, with each staffer taking amendments relating to the different policy portfolios.  I’m excited about being able to help carry the load this week, and although I expect it will be some grueling late nights, I’m sure it will be fun and satisfying in the way that intense teamwork can be.

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“The Challenge of Venice” at the DC Environmental Film Festival

Through the extremely well-informed Fellows Mafia, I learned about the annual two week Environmental Film Fest in DC.  There appear to be six or eight different movies shown each night in different venues across the city, with no venue being used more than once.  I could easily identify several films each day that looked interesting, although I confess that my preferences have been somewhat influenced in favor of films shown at embassies.  My niece came to visit for part of her spring break this past week, and she was game to join me for my first ever embassy visit.

The Italian Embassy wasn’t quite what either my niece or I expected.  I think we were both anticipating an opulent mansion, but what we actually found was an enormous modern building instead.  I can imagine that the many activities and missions of an active embassy could rapidly outgrow a more historic structure, and I can see the wisdom in having a building for the actual work of an embassy. After passing through security, we walked into a large open central space that would be ideal for receptions, and then the movie was in a room off to one side.  There was still a generous helping of Italian Renaissance art on the walls, so it was not completely devoid of the expected Italian flavor.

The Italian Embassy

The Italian Embassy

The film we saw was called, “The Challenge of Venice,” and it focused on the difficulties being caused by rising sea levels due to climate change.  I had always understood that Venice had canals, but I never gave much thought to why they existed other than being an interesting bit of architecture.  From the splendid footage from the film, I can now envision that Venice is built on a collection of islands in a large lagoon, so water transport is really the most practical way of moving people and goods.  The Grand Canal, which is the most famous of the waterways, carves a large backward S through the main island.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Lagoon of Venice

The Lagoon of Venice

 

There are four inlets from the Adriatic Sea into the lagoon which allow tides to go in and out.  The “acqua alta,” or high water, is usually a wintertime phenomenon that is the combination of several different factors.  In addition to the astronomical tides caused by the phases of the moon, there is the seiche, which is an additional wave of tide that sweeps up and down the Adriatic. Winter also is often accompanied by the scirocco, a strong wind from the south, which helps pile water up at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, behind the boot of Italy.  Venice sits at the very top end of the boot.  Unusually high tides occur when at least two out of the three, astronomical tides, seiche, and scirocco coincide.  On a long term basis, two additional factors are expected to exacerbate the problem.  First, the land in the area is also gradually subsiding, or sinking into the sea, so tides don’t have to be as high to be problematic.  Second  is the eustasy, the higher sea levels caused by climate change.

The first challenge of higher sea levels is an immediate disruption of foot and boat traffic.  I didn’t immediately think that deliveries made by boat should be a problem, but those boats have to pass underneath the bridges, so if the water is too high, there isn’t enough clearance under the bridges and transport comes to a halt.  It appeared that no resident or tourist in Venice should be without a sturdy pair of rain boots either.  I saw the boots and thought, “Wellies!” and then followed up the thought with, “No, that’s a British term.”  When the narrator went on to identify the boots as “Wellingtons,” I considered the man’s English accent and realized I had been right after all.  Sometimes even Wellies aren’t enough to deal with the high water, so temporary elevated walkways are constructed to cross the immersed sidewalks.  Hardy locals will don their special acqua alta boots, which look like waders to me, and some of the tourists will take off their shoes and roll up their pants, but three to four hours of high tide is obviously a great inconvenience all around.  The famous Piazza San Marco is one of the low spots on the central island, so it floods frequently.  I smiled at the pictures of the man standing in his front door using a long rod to retrieve the outdoor chairs and tables from the water in front of his restaurant.

Piazza San Mark

Piazza San Mark

On a longer term basis, the higher floods are causing problems for businesses, buildings, and homes.  On the first floor of many structures, residents can identify the high water line from the exceptional tide in 1966 that flooded several feet up across the lagoon. The salt water also penetrates brick and stone, and when the water seeps out, the salt crystallizes. The development of the crystals creates and widens cracks, weakening the foundations and the walls.  Individual buildings have been protected by chemical injections or by raising the buildings, but those solutions are not practical for the whole city or for the historic walkways.

That the Venetians have been coping with high water on a long term basis is evident in each person knowing exactly how many centimeters above sea level the floor of his building stands.  I have certainly paid attention to elevations when I’m traveling in the mountains, but I have never had a similar awareness when I was close to the sea.  Several of the locals who were interviewed as part of the documentary could explain that the floor of the shop was 100 cm high, and the water often rose 10 cm above that causing disruption or damage.  The bakers seemed to take it in stride, but the man who made ornate costumes and masks was more negatively affected.  When tides of 110 cm are expected, there are warning sirens and people receive text messages on their phones.  The acqua alta is usually 120 cm or higher, and the record was over 160 cm.

Back in 2003, Italy felt that dealing with the rising seas threatening Venice was a national problem, and after considering a number of different possibilities, they settled on a huge engineering project to create floodgates that rise from the seabed to close off the inlets to the lagoon under unusually high tides.  Called the MOSE project, the acronym is also intended to invoke Moses, who successfully held back the water of the Red Sea.  MOSE is due to be completed in 2014, and combined with a complementary project to restore the wetlands in the lagoon and strengthen the coastline to help with water management, the hope is that people, the culture, and the history of Venice will then be protected during the increasing acqua altas.

The MOSE flood gates and the key lagoon inlets

The MOSE flood gates and the key lagoon inlets

Overall, it was an excellent film, and I learned both about Venice and about the special challenges of water in that city.  I’m happy to recommend it, and I’m hoping to continue celebrating the environmental film fest this coming week.

 

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A Visit to Connecticut

Going home to Connecticut for a weekend highlighted for me the differences between living in the city of Washington, DC, and living in suburban Connecticut.

The first obvious difference was the color of the ground.  Connecticut had received a generous helping of snow from the most recent winter storm, and there was white everywhere.  In contrast, the federal government had closed on Wednesday for what we all called the “snowquester,” but our precipitation all came as rain.  Certainly DC was right on the line between rain and snow, and we were not far from areas that received significant accumulations, but just like local school districts that are laughed at for closing too early (and are assailed if they do not), the residents of the Capital roundly mocked the closure for lack of snow.  As a side note, apparently the federal government does not include Congress, since the Senate was in session all day (and into the night for Senator Paul’s filibuster).  My triple heritage of growing up in Upstate New York, living in Connecticut, and currently belonging to Colorado gave me a particularly lofty attitude toward the snow and just how much it would take to keep me home from work.  Going back to Connecticut where the roads were all bare mere hours after the latest snow ended reminded me of just how easily Nutmeggers take snow in stride.  (Connecticut is the Nutmeg State, and if you try the alternatives options for referring to state residents, such as Connecticutters or Connecticutians, you’ll understand why Nutmeggers is the preferred term.)

The strangest part of my trip was the novelty of getting into a car.  In the past ten weeks, I think I’ve ridden in a car twice.  My life focuses on walking and on the Metro.  Cars don’t even have a spot to tap my farecard.  I haven’t particularly missed having a car, and I especially haven’t missed sitting in DC traffic, although I do acknowledge that in Connecticut, car transport is vastly faster and more direct than mass transit.

In my mornings at home, when I took the dog for a walk, I was aware of the difference in sounds.  The tweets, chirps, and rat-a-tat-tats that combined to create the morning bird chorus made me realize how little wildlife I encounter in DC.  (Congress doesn’t count!)  Traffic was present from a distant highway rather than being outside my window.  I specifically chose an apartment in DC that had trees and land nearby, but I have missed the open expanse of park across from my house in Newington.

The contrast between being an apartment dweller and a homeowner was also acute.  There is only so much cleaning and puttering that can be done in an apartment, and then I am done.  In a house, I found myself constantly noticing small and large tasks that could use attention, and as all homeowners know, there is never a “done” in a house.  Still, I also was aware of many past projects that had been completed, and I had the satisfaction of seeing my own handiwork and taking pride in my abilities.  Our boldly colored walls are certainly a change from the standard white walls of my apartment.

My Beloved Husband took me out for breakfast on Saturday morning, and I was struck by how short the buildings are and how far apart.  During pre-fellowship visits to DC, I had been a bit concerned that all the concrete would get on my nerves, and I certainly felt that my soul had more space to breathe in Connecticut.

Since Saturday was warm, the snow melted very quickly, which allowed my BH and I to get out in the garden.  We took care of some branches that had come down in various storms, and then we walked around and observed the progress of the many bulbs announcing the approach of spring.  Some of our most enjoyable time was spent imagining and planning projects.  I sensed that I was bringing a different big picture approach to the planning process that has probably been influenced by my current job and how I approach problems there.  My BH and I discussed the fundamental principles around which a garden should be designed, and we came up with LAWW: Light, Access, Water, and Weeds.  That’s a new perspective for our designs, and I suspect it will guide our future projects.

I have absolutely loved my fellowship year in DC, and my wise BH keeps reminding me not to wish my time away.  I am determined to enjoy every minute that I am here, but this past weekend reminded me that when it comes to an end, I will also enjoy returning to Connecticut and a different flavor of life’s adventures.

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