Monthly Archives: June 2013

S. 744 Immigration

On Thursday, the Senate passed a historic bill to reform comprehensively the country’s immigration system.  Senator Bennet was one of the bipartisan Gang of 8 (or Group of 8; Senator McCain felt that as a gang, they were rather pathetic) who spent about five months hashing out a compromise that wasn’t perfect, but that both parties could support.  It seemed like our immigration LA didn’t sleep for those five months, and the immigration Fellow and the immigration legislative aide didn’t do all that much better.  Thus it was with great anticipation that we greeted the vote on final passage on Thursday afternoon.

Because this is probably the one chance in our generation to try to reform immigration, Majority Leader Reid set up the vote to respect its historic significance; the senators were asked to vote from their desks.  Compared with the usual chaos of roll call votes with senators wandering in and out over the course of fifteen minutes and having numerous conversations in the chamber, you may appreciate the contrast of this formal procedure.

Throughout the afternoon leading up to the vote, the various members of the Group of 8, as well as others who had worked hard on the legislation, gave speeches on the floor to discuss the bill, the hard work that went into creating it, and the relationships that have been forged as a result.  Many of the senators also spoke of their personal histories with immigration, whether they were removed by one generation or by many from those who came from other countries to find homes in America.

I was part of the Bennet staff group who went over to be present the vote.  The galleries were completely full; in the public galleries two separate immigration groups were identifiable by their blue T-shirts in one section and their orange T-shirts in another.  In the staff and guest galleries, guests were dressed up in their best clothes to honor the occasion.  I understand that Senator Bennet’s mother had come to support him, and I thought, “If I passed a bill of this magnitude, I know *my* mother would absolutely come!”


Sitting in the staff gallery with its view of the Democratic side of the chamber, I looked out over all the senators in the chamber and how familiar they had become in the past ten months.  I have no idea if the women had coordinated their outfits or not, but the lilac, peach, and pink blazers scattered throughout the darker suits of the men all harmonized pleasantly.  It was particularly special to see Mo Cowan, the man who was appointed to John Kerry’s seat from Massachusetts, sporting a particularly dapper red bow tie and pocket square.  With the election of Senator Markey last week, this was Senator Cowan’s last appearance and last vote in the Senate.  I know that the folks in Massachusetts haven’t heard that much about him, but among the staff and senators, he has been uniformly respected and admired for embracing his role in his short time here.  Friends in Massachusetts, he has been far more than a placeholder.  He has done you proud, and I was thrilled that he was present and part of this historic occasion.  I was also amused to watch him laughing with Senator Warren, who sits next to him.  They were apparently comparing the records of who had sat at their desks, which can be discovered by opening the drawers and looking at the names carved in the wood.

The finite number of floor passes for staff had been snapped up early in the day, but our own immigration team had snagged temporary passes and camped out for several hours prior to the vote.  When the staff seats were filled, extra staff and a few House members lined the back walls of the chamber while the full complement of pages was arrayed across the front side walls.  I appreciated the full weight of the ceremony when I looked over to see that Vice President Biden himself was presiding over the session.

Senator Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handled the bill, gave a short speech, and then Majority Leader Reid gave the last remarks before the vote as the senators drifted in to take their seats at their desks.  He spoke of the people who had worked on the bill and of the courage needed to meet in the middle.  He spoke of people who were divided by party but united by love of country.

Senator Reid invoked the spirit of Ted Kennedy, who was a longtime advocate of immigration reform.  He said, “So today is the day. While I am sad Senator Kennedy isn’t here to see history made, I know he is looking at us proudly and loudly. Remember that voice? (There was a chuckle from some of the Senators at that point) But Ted Kennedy urged those of us who believed deeply in its cause to keep the faith. Here is what he said.

‘We will be back and we will prevail. . . . America always finds a way to solve its problems, expand its frontiers, and move closer to its ideals. It is not always easy, but it is the American way.’

That is what Ted Kennedy said.”

After Senator Reid’s remarks, Vice President Biden, a former longstanding member of the Senate himself, asked for the reading of S. 744 for a third time.  The Clerk read the title, and Majority Whip Senator Durbin asked for the Yays and Nays.

With that, the Clerk called the roll one by one, and the Senators voted from their desks.  After each name was called, the senator would rise and speak his or her vote, with either “Aye” or “Nay.”  Obviously some senators have been alphabetical for many years.  Senator Carper was already getting up as Senator Cardin was sitting down.  Likewise Mark Udall of Colorado was immediately followed by his cousin, Tom Udall of New Mexico.

There was great amusement when one of the Republican senators got swept up in the moment and voted, “Aye,” sat down, and then stood up and said, “Sorry, I meant Nay.”  Senator Schumer, who sat across the aisle from the senator made a beckoning motion of, “that’s OK, come over here.  Come along with us.”  The chuckles rose up but were as swiftly muted in respect for the formality of the occasion.

Looking over at the full press gallery, I realized that each person there was tracking the votes on an official vote-counting sheet.  Those pages are easily identifiable because they are about six inches wide and over two feet long.  Also, the names of the Democratic senators are printed in blue ink and the names of the Republicans are printed in red; the colors are apparent even from a distance.  When the vote was complete, the Clerk read the list of senators voting in the affirmative and voting in the negative, and I watched the press representatives double checking their notes.

Before Vice President Biden read the final tally, he cautioned that expressions of approval or disapproval in response to the result were not appropriate.  I was a little sad that some folks in the gallery either did not understand or did not choose to respect the traditions and dignity of the Senate, so when they started chanting, “Yes we can!” the Vice President was obliged to direct the Sergeant at Arms to restore order in the galleries.

The bill passed with a vote of 68-32, which included fourteen Republicans joining the entire group of Democrats in voting in favor of the bill.  No one got everything that they wanted, but I’ve learned that is the nature of legislation.  Being present for the vote and watching the full tradition of the Senate was one of the most powerful and inspiring experiences I have had this year.  I’m not sure I can do justice to the energy in the chamber that afternoon and how honored I was to be part of it.

Of course, our office was jubilant.  Most of us returned to our desks but continued to watch the floor in C-Span as a number of the members of the Group of 8 returned to the floor to acknowledge the staffers and other senators’ staff who had made the entire bill possible.  The office where the LA’s and the Fellows sit adjoins the Chief of Staff’s office through front and back doors, and his office additionally adjoins the Schedulers’ office.  Thus when a member of our staff was mentioned on the floor, there would be a cheer that went up from multiple rooms.  I was especially pleased when Senator Bennet acknowledged the schedulers of the eight senators on the Group of 8, because I can only imagine the challenge they had of finding time for three weekly meetings in the already overly packed schedules of the senators.

We ended the day with a champagne toast for all of the folks in our office.  It has been a great honor to be part of a group that has worked so hard on such a worthy cause.  I completely understand the national frustration with Congress, but at least on this day and on this project, people worked with great dedication and perseverance to find a middle path that might work for everyone.

At the end of his remarks just before the vote, Senator Reid read a poem that spoke to each one of us who was listening.

I can see a new day, a new day soon to be,

when the storm clouds are all past

and the sun shines on a world that is free.

I can see a new man, a new man standing tall,

with his head high and his heart proud

and afraid of nothing at all.

I can see a new day, a new day soon to be,

when the storm clouds are all past

and the sun shines on a world that is free.


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The Farm Bill

This picture has nothing to do with the farm bill, but I thought it would make a good thumbnail!

This picture has nothing to do with the farm bill, but I thought it would make a good thumbnail!

The Farm Bill passed the Senate during the previous work period, and it makes an interesting study in policy.  It also is not entirely about farmers, which came as a surprise to me.  The bill really focuses on authorization for the US Department of Agriculture, so it spans all USDA programs.

Farm bills are supposed to be passed every five years.  Last summer, the Senate passed a farm bill, but the House didn’t take up their version before the session ended at the end of the year.  With a new Congress in place, all pending legislation from the previous session died, and all bills had to be re-introduced and re-passed through committee and through each chamber.  That does make some sense since the new Senate had a dozen new senators.  Even in the Committee on Agriculture, the Ranking Member changed, and that required some changes in the farm bill.

A large bill is organized into Titles, each of which is on a different topic.  Each Title is a bit like a chapter of a book, so the “Title IX” that is used to ensure that girls and boys have equal opportunities to play sports is actually part of a larger public law called, “Education Amendments of 1972.”  Thus many other bills also have a Title IX, but those aren’t quite as famous.  It seems a little odd that we refer to a law by a term that means, “Chapter 9,” but I’ve never claimed that we are logical all the time.

I thought it would be interesting to walk through the various Titles of the Senate farm bill, to see all the components in a single piece of legislation.  The House version would cover the same general topics, but the details might be different.  I simply know the Senate version much more thoroughly.

Title I: Commodity Programs.   As it has been explained to me, there are two different types of crops.  Specialty crops include tomatoes, strawberries, and broccoli, and these commodities get little support in terms of either federal subsidies or crop insurance.  Program crops, which include corn, barley, and wheat, have enjoyed a federal subsidy called, “Direct Payments,” which pays a farmer a certain amount based on the acreage grown of the program crop.  There is no threshold of need in these payments, and often the bulk of these payments go to extremely large farms, so there have been many complaints about these programs.  In the current Senate farm bill, these payments are now tied to triggers of price or yield, so payments only happen either when prices dip or when a farmer’s yield goes down.  The reduction in these programs is balanced out by strengthening crop insurance in Title XI.

Title II: Conservation Programs.  Since this Title focuses on environmental programs, it’s one that I know more about.  The programs in this Title provide support and/or incentives for farmers to preserve grassland/rangeland/forest/wetlands, to preserve wildlife habitat, or to incorporate conservation measures on land that is in production.

Title III: Trade.  The focus of this title is statues concerning U.S. international food aid as well as the development of agricultural export markets.

Title IV: Nutrition.  This has been one of the thorniest Titles of the whole bill since it deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  There was some back-and-forth in the Senate about how much funding should be provided to support this program.   Ultimately, the program was cut by $4.1 billion over 10 years in the Senate, but the House bill involved a cut of $20.5 billion over 10 years.  That level of spending reduction was a “poison pill” for the House Democrats, who pretty unilaterally voted against the bill as a result.  Ironically, conservative Republicans voted against the overall bill because they felt the cut was not enough.

Title V: Credit Title.  The USDA is the lender of last resort for applicants for agricultural credit and rural development programs, and this Title re-authorizes the program and provides some tweaks.

Title VI: Rural Development.  This section defines “rural,” and then authorizes programs such as rural water and wastewater assistance programs, as well as the rural electrification act, which includes the Rural Broadband Act.  In each of these cases, the idea is to provide support so that rural residents have basic utilities and safe, clean water.

Title VII: Research, Extension, and Related Matters. USDA is authorized to conduct agricultural research relating to topics such as specialty crops and organic agriculture.  In this section, there is also a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Title VIII: Forestry.  It may seem odd to have forestry in the Farm Bill, but because the US Forest Service is under the USDA, this bill is an appropriate place to address some forestry issues.  The Senate bill contains two Bennet bills that were introduced individually, but were conveniently rolled into this larger bill.  Because floor time is so limited, it’s difficult for small bills to get passed. The key is hang your smaller bill off  a “vehicle,” which is a related larger bill with a good chance of passage.  That way when the large bill passes, your smaller bill goes along with it.  The two Bennet provisions in this Title include a limited ability to accelerate treatment of forests that have extensive insect damage, and an expansion of the “Good Neighbor” program which allows private, state, and federal foresters jointly to hire a single contractor to do work such as fuel reduction on adjacent lands shared by more than one of these groups.

Title IX: Energy. The 2002 farm bill was the first to have an energy title.  Conceptually, the idea was to incentivize research and development for renewable energy, but practically, the USDA focuses their programs on biofuel production and use.  Corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol incentives fall under this title.

Title X: Horticulture.  This section focuses on specialty crops and certified organic programs.  I did look up some definitions; Agriculture focuses on growing food crops and raising animals for farming.  Horticulture is supposed to employ special techniques in cultivating plants, and it includes plants such as vegetables, trees, flowers, shrubs, fruits, and nuts.  I’m not sure if these definitions applied in this section, but it helped me to put horticulture in a context.

Title XI: Crop Insurance. Most farmers, if they can, buy crop insurance so that in the case of an intense drought or other catastrophe, they can still survive until the next year.  The federal government picks up an average of about 60% of the premium for crop insurance.

Title XII: Miscellaneous. In the current farm bill, this Title includes provisions for socially disadvantaged and limited-resource producers, livestock, and other odds and ends.

One of the most fascinating parts of the Farm Bill is that in general, it is not a partisan bill.  That the House turned their bill into a partisan question last week was quite unusual.  The usual divisions are between agricultural states and non-agricultural states.  Sometimes the ag states subdivide along commodity lines of, “We like peanuts but not wheat,” or “We like alfalfa but not cotton,” but nearly always the alliances are regional.  Most commonly, if I am tracking a vote, I look for party crossover votes, but with the farm bill, the split of the votes can be quite unpredictable, which makes analyzing who voted how quite interesting.


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The Senate Chamber

The U.S. Senate Chamber

The U.S. Senate Chamber

One of the many great pleasures of my fellowship has been to go over to the Senate gallery to watch the action on the floor in person.  It is possible for the public to go as well, although timing is everything since the House galleries are open on all weekdays, the Senate galleries are generally only open while the Senate is in session.  I was extremely fortunate that while my BFF (Best Friend Forever) was in town recently, the Senate was holding a rare Friday session, so I was able to take her up and show her around.

Because of the strict rule that absolutely no electronics are allowed in the galleries, there are check-in facilities in the Capitol Visitors’ Center.  At that point, you must divest yourself of electronics, food, and drink.  My BFF and I deposited cameras, phones, and keys in the box along with two bottles of water and a rather comical shower of granola bars.  Having lightened our loads, we took the elevator to the third floor where we went through an additional security screening.  The magnetometer to scan people is pretty standard, but rather than having an X-ray machine for bags, they look through the contents.  I passed through without any problem, but my BFF got rejected for her spare pair of sandals.  The guard explained that there was to be no shoe-throwing in the Senate.  BFF was able to drop off the sandals at the upstairs check-in, so we were not diverted for long.

As we arrived, the Senate floor was relatively active.  When I had taken my niece into the gallery this spring, she looked around and said, “But there’s no one here!”  Indeed when C-Span was added to the House, they instituted a regular pan of the room to emphasize that a fiery or inflammatory speech might be given to an empty chamber.  My BFF got to observe part of the ongoing debate about the immigration bill and specifically see the discussions among the Democrats and Republicans about how to move forward on border security.  Active meant that there were five senators on the floor.  Everyone else would have been keeping track of the action by watching C-Span, so being off the floor does not imply that senators and staff are detached.  Usually it just means that they are involved in other meetings and hearings.

Each senator’s desk was supplied the 4” thick stack of paper that is the immigration bill.  Some of the desks no longer sported their copies, I assume to clear space for the portable podiums that the Senators use to support their notes for speeches.  The podiums are quite handy to get an idea of who is intending to come to the floor and give a speech since the Senate pages will put the podiums in place well in advance of the arrival of the senator.

The Well of the chamber

The Well of the chamber

In some ways, the Senate floor resembles a theatrical production; there are numerous different supporting roles that contribute to a smoothly functioning process.  The high central desk is where the presiding officer sits.  Since both the Vice President and the President Pro Tempore (the longest serving senator in the majority party) are usually busy elsewhere, the job of presiding gets rotated among the junior senators in the majority party.  I think it’s a good way for them to learn Senate procedure, and it’s been fun to watch the new folks learn the ropes.  In the desks immediately below and in front of the presiding officer sit the parliamentarian, the clerk, and a few other folks.  The party secretaries sit at desks in front of those people on the lowest level.  All of these seats are in the central semi-circle called the Well.  Interestingly, senators’ personal staff are not allowed in the Well, but the high school students who serve as Senate pages move freely throughout the chamber.  Usually there are a half dozen  pages sitting on the steps on each side of the central platform, but they spring into action when needed, and especially during a vote, they are all active, even if it is just opening doors for senators.  Personal staff are allowed to sit in the L-shaped galleries in the rear of each side of the chamber or special staff chairs may be placed aside a senator’s chair if he or she wants staff support during a speech.  We do NOT sit in the senators’ chairs.  That was impressed upon us very strongly!

The public gallery is overhead to the presiding officer’s right hand, which placed my BFF and I above the Democratic cloakroom.  The Cloakrooms are where the stage managing occurs for each party.  To introduce or “drop” a bill, it must be taken to the Cloakroom of the respective party.  The floor staff, in conjunction with the cloakroom staff, keep track of which senators have voted, so if a senator hasn’t yet voted, the cloakroom will call the senator’s staff to find out if the senator is coming.  Likewise, staff can call the cloakroom to say, “The Senator is on the way from the airport.  Please hold the vote open until he or she arrives.”

Considering the amount of time I spend watching the action in the Senate on C-Span, I’m still always surprised by how small and intimate the chamber feels when I’m observing in person.  Likewise, C-Span always focuses on a single person, whereas when I can look around the chamber, I can watch the interactions between senators as well as the conversations that take place in the background while someone else is talking.  It is tradition in the Senate that they don’t refer to each other by name.  It’s always, “The Senator from Colorado,” or “My colleague from Connecticut.”  Technically before you mention the name of another senator, you are supposed to ask for and receive his or her permission.

Watching votes is particularly fun since all of the senators come to the floor within a 15 minute period.  It took my fellow Bennet Fellow a little while to get the hang of how a vote works.  The Clerk calls the roll alphabetically once, but because the senators wander in and out voting, the Clerk pauses while recording votes, and there may be several minutes of gap in between names.  Senators also vote whenever they show up, not necessarily in alphabetical order.  My fellow Fellow just wasn’t seeing how it all went together until Senator Bennet arrived on the floor.  I said, “Watch him!”  The Senator, from the other side of the well, caught the eye of the clerk, and gave a brief thumbs up.  “See!  He just voted.”  A few minutes later, Senator Franken walked in the main door, took only about three steps into the chamber, gave a thumbs up from across the room, and turned around and walked out again.

From the bird’s eye perch in the staff gallery, it’s big fun to watch the dynamics during a vote.  It only takes a moment to vote, but since this is the major time that the senators interact, many of them hang around for a while to chat.  Some folks assiduously stay on their own side of the chamber, whereas others adroitly work the floor and chat up colleagues on both sides.  Casual meetings on the floor are also convenient times for senators to influence each other on upcoming bills or votes, so leveraging that time can be very advantageous.

The biggest challenge of the presiding officer occurs if someone wants to speak after a vote is concluded.  It must be very intimidating to try to be authoritative in asking your senior colleagues to take their conversations out of the well and out of the chamber.  The presiding officer doesn’t even have a full gavel, there’s just this strangely shaped stone available to rap on the desk.

Since I arrived, two senators have passed away while still in office.  In December, Senator Inouye’s coffin lay in state in the Capitol rotunda, and more recently, Senator Lautenberg lay in state (laid in state? Was lying in state?  What’s the past tense of “lie in state” anyway?) in the well of the Senate.  For both men, I went up to the Senate staff gallery to see the tradition of draping the senator’s desk in black velvet with a bowl of white roses on top.  I also paid my respects to each by visiting each coffin.  I confess that the event for Senator Lautenberg gave me a well-concealed thrill since I actually got to go onto the floor of the Senate.  I did my best to be respectful of the ceremony while still absorbing every detail of being on the floor that I could.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Senate gallery, I highly recommend it.  It’s pretty thrilling to watch how the government works from the inside.

The outside door to the Chamber

The outside door to the Chamber after Senator Lautenberg’s ceremony


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National Building Museum

I visited the National Building Museum with my sister, Heather, during her recent visit.  This destination blipped my radar because I read that the museum does indoor mini-golf in the summertime with each hole designed by a different local architectural firm.  That sounded like big fun, and I knew that Heather would be up for an adventure.

The National Building Museum

The National Building Museum

The National Building Museum is a private non-profit created by Congress in 1980.  It is housed in the former Pensions Building, which turned out to have spectacular architecture even before we got to the exhibits.  After the Civil War when pensions to soldiers, widows, and orphans were greatly expanded, a corresponding much larger number of pension workers were required to handle all the paperwork.  The job of designing a new building for the workers was given to Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had been the U.S. Army Quartermaster General.  He obviously felt that the job of the quartermaster doesn’t get enough publicity because in the three foot high frieze that encircles the building on the outside, the quartermaster function figures prominently in depicting the soldiers and units of the Civil War.

The Civil War Frieze

The Civil War Frieze

I think a class in architecture might have been a very good preparation for my year in DC, but even to my untutored eye, I’m aware that  many of the buildings in DC share a similar style, whereas others stick out as being very different.  The Pensions building was one of those different buildings, and I believe that rather than using the more Roman-style of most of the buildings, the Pensions building was done in an Italianate style that was not universally pleasing to local residents.  When asked to comment on the building, Philip Sheridan announced, “Too bad the damn thing is fireproof.”

The courtyard of the Museum

The courtyard of the Museum

I’m not sure what Sheridan was complaining about.  The building is designed around a multi-story-high central courtyard supported by mammoth Corinthian columns.  (Those are the really fancy ones- this is the one piece of architecture that I actually know.)  The design accounted for the Capital’s swamp-like summer weather, so there is extensive cross ventilation between the outer windows and the inner courtyard.  Cool air came in the bottom and hot air went out the top.  The space is so impressive that I was not surprised to learn that it has been a popular site for Inaugural balls since Grover Cleveland in 1885.

Back to the present, Heather and I had the choice of two different mini-golf courses, so we randomly chose one and set off.  We had arrived right as the museum opened, so there wasn’t time for everything to get really backed up or congested.  I have certainly never been on such a creative mini-golf course, although sometimes I felt that the architects were more adept at interesting designs than at playable holes.

Office work flow

Office work flow

I was intrigued by the hole that represented a new kind of office flow.  Although the design was fun, the execution was a bit odd since the track started at about waist level.  I elected to use my golf club as a pool cue, and I got a hole in one.  Heather’ strategy of putting was less successful on this hole.  At the next hole, there was a treadmill that ran backwards underneath some cut out buildings.  There also appeared to be an easier route without a treadmill, but hey, that was for babies, right?  So I took a firm stroke… and ended up with my ball tossed part way back and almost inaccessible between the buildings.  Guess I should have gone for the baby route.

Should have taken the baby route.

Should have taken the baby route.

I completely understand the theory that for holes that lie uphill it is important not to be timid, but I seem either to undershoot or to hit the ball so hard that it flies off the course.  This clear Plexiglas hole was even more bewildering.  From the side, it’s clear that there is an uphill ramp that leads to two funnels to take the ball back down to the level of the cup, but from the putting area, I couldn’t actually see the surface I was hitting on.  Heather was much better on the firm strength holes than I was.

Hills-not my strength

Hills-not my strength

The one hole where my very controlled shots (might I say, general wimpiness?) was an advantage was this structure made entirely out of wood, including the polished wood underneath.  Called, “Tomorrow’s Water,” it is supposed to represent the gentle flow of water as it travels from mountains to the sea. In reality, because the surface was so smooth, it was difficult to keep the ball on the track.  Once the ball went onto the lower surface, it then became impossible to hit the ball hard enough to get it up into the hole without the ball shooting over the top and back off the upper structure.  I managed to do the par 3, but it was a really nasty hole.  Still, it was fun to do such an interesting and unusual course, so I recommend it to summer visitors to DC.

This was a nasty little hole.

This was a nasty little hole.

After mini-golf, Heather was determined that we should go see the Guastavino exhibit that was in the museum.  The Guastavino family came over from Italy and had an extremely unusual technique for constructing arches out of tile rather than stone.  The resulting arches were extremely strong, but also were lightweight and fireproof.  Heather had gone on a tour of the Boston Public Library that highlighted Guastavino’s work in that building, so she shared the highlights of what she had learned.  Because Guastavino was local, he did quite a bit of work on the Boston Public Library, and after the building was completed, he used the library rather like a show room.  “Go into the Library, look at the following rooms, and tell me which style you’d like for your own building.”

An example of Guastavino's work

An example of Guastavino’s work

My favorite part of the Guastavino exhibit was that a team composed of local masons plus architecture and engineering students from MIT worked together to build a half scale example of a vaulted ceiling using the Guastavino technique.  There was a video that included comments and stories from many of the people who worked on the project, and one of the most memorable details for me was that sometimes when the engineers and architects would calculate a certain measurement, the masons would explain that no, the measurement needed to be adjusted.  The masons were always right, which showed me that all of the classes and studying in the world can’t substitute for experience.  (I think you can see the video here:


Guastavino arch project

Guastavino arch project


The Building Museum also has a number of activities for younger kids, so it is family friendly.  For people who are not looking for a family experience, the gift shop at the museum has been consistently rated as the best in DC, so this destination has a lot to recommend it.



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He He He

For several years, I’ve been aware of a national shortage on helium.  That’s not because I buy party balloons regularly but because liquid helium is used to cool the superconducting magnet on the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instrument in the chemistry department.  Since NMRs are closely related to the MRI’s used in hospital, both instruments need the liquid helium to make sure that their magnets stay cold and are usable.  Thus far, we’ve been able to get helium just as we need it, but the suppliers aren’t able to give us spare gas or liquid to make sure they can provide for all of their customers.

The history of the situation goes back to World War I when the military started to explore helium for filling blimps or dirigibles for spying behind enemy lines.  In the 1960’s, the United States decided to start stockpiling helium to make sure that we wouldn’t run out if it became a military necessity.  The most common source of helium is in deposits of natural gas that may be naturally enriched in helium.  Enriched is a relative term since the natural gas only contains between 0.5 and 2.7% helium.  The best way to store the gas/helium mixture was to pump it underground, which created the Federal Helium Reserve on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land outside Amarillo, TX, chosen for its proximity to the natural gas fields in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

By 1995, the national helium reserve was $1.4 billion in debt, so Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which ordered that the reserve should start selling the resources until the debt was paid off.  At that point, the price for the helium from the reserve was locked in at a set point above the market value.  Federal agencies were required to buy their helium at the higher price from BLM to create a guaranteed market.  Fiscally responsible, doesn’t penalize academic and industrial users- sounds like an excellent idea, right?

Since then, the need for helium gas and liquid helium has increased enormously.  Since helium liquefies at about 4 Kelvin, it is a cryogen, roughly translated to, “wikked cold liquid.”  Liquid helium is now used as a cryogen for low temperature applications in physics and for superconducting magnets, but it is also used fabricating semiconductors and for military uses.  So over time, the price of liquid helium increased until it hit the BLM price, but it stopped there since there was no point in charging more when people could get helium less expensively from the Federal Helium Reserve.  Even on the international market, all prices are benchmarked to the BLM price, and some companies went out of business as a result.  Currently the Federal Helium Reserve supplies 40% of domestic helium and 30% of the global market.

The problem is that the $1.4 billion debt will be paid off in October, and according to the original law, the reserve was supposed to close when the debt had been retired.  Since a number of companies had gone out of business, there are currently very few sources of helium, and the current helium scarcity will become a crisis.

The energy committees in Congress are quite aware of the urgency of this situation, and the goal is to have the Federal Helium Reserve remain open and to ramp up the price gradually to be market controlled, thus allowing the helium supply to transition to market control.  That this issue is extremely bipartisan is demonstrated by the House passing a bill 394-1 to keep the reserve open and let the price adjustment occur.

In the Senate, the helium bill should be voted out of committee this week in what’s called a “mark-up” session.  I always envision a bunch of senators sitting around with red pens and a copy of the bill, but the process is actually more formal with amendments and voting.  With such widespread popularity, the bill could potentially pass by unanimous consent rather than requiring a vote, according to a recent article in one of the daily newspapers that focuses on Congress.  The bill is unlikely to receive floor time during this work period since we are consumed by immigration at the moment, but there is hope that we’ll deal with it in July.

One of the really interesting parts of this story is how my involvement has been influenced by other Fellows.  One of last year’s Fellows worked on the version for the previous Congress, and she mentioned it when we had dinner together.  One of this year’s Fellows is working on the current version, and she mentioned to me that this issue has a significant deadline.  It was because of her that I asked to be the expert in my office, and she also sat down with me and gave me the whole background story on how we got to the current situation.

When a bill is going to be coming up, committees will often have hearings on the topic.  My fellow Fellow was the lead for the helium hearing, and she did a magnificent job of selecting and prepping speakers.  Energy and Natural Resources Chair Senator Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Member Senator Murkowski (R-AK) have an excellent rapport and demonstrate how progress can be made in a bipartisan effort.  The staff wrote straight opening comments for Senator Wyden, but I especially appreciated wonderful puns in the opening remarks from Senator Murkowski.

“Lastly, and on a slightly lighter note, let me say that advancing this bill will lift a weight off the shoulders of many sectors that rely upon helium. This is a noble effort that can float above the partisan fray. We should all rise in support of it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to hearing from the witnesses.”

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To Fight a Fire

The Black Forest Fire taken from Monument.

The Black Forest Fire taken from Monument.

Midway through my postdoctoral experience, we had a smolder- smoke but no flames- in the computer room while the boss was away.  I remember that the boss dropped everything to return immediately, and I remember that when he called from the airport, some rat bastard gave the phone to me.  I conveyed everything that I knew, everything I guessed, and I’m sure I made up some information until the boss reached saturation or until his plane left.  That experience taught me that information is a currency, just like money is.  I also learned that when you are at a distance from a crisis, that one of the ways people try to cope is to learn everything you can.

Those of us in the DC office are having the same experience with the wildfires currently raging in Colorado.  I’ve been drafting briefing memos twice daily on the fires, and since each outlet seems to do major updates only once a day, I’m never satisfied with how much information I have available.  I have, however, had a chance to reflect on all of the data that I have been processing.

My email Inbox is a swath of red these days.  I have learned to color code my emails for rapid identification such as light blue for meetings, yellow for phone calls, orange for the farm bill, and dark blue for water-related material.  I have generally reserved red for the most urgent information, but it also seems quite appropriate for forest fire communications.  I am part of a staff team divided between DC and multiple locations in Colorado who contributes to monitoring the situation, and we regularly loop in each other on updates from various sources.  That amounts to dozens of red-coded emails each day.

I have also gained a better understanding of the scope of operations required to cope with a forest fire, so I shall tell the story as I understand it.

When a fire starts, the person running the show is known as the incident commander, and that person is the lead based on where the fire starts.  For example in Colorado this week, one fire started on National Park Service land and one started on Bureau of Land Management Land, so the incident commanders for those fires were from those two federal agencies.  The Black Forest Fire, which is burning just north of Colorado Springs, was on private land, so the incident commander was the El Paso County Sheriff (and I’ve certainly learned to spell sheriff this week!)  As the situation gets more complex, there are support teams that come on line to help out, and eventually, the Black Forest fire was complex enough that one of the federal Type I teams, trained to manage the most complicated incidents, arrived to assume control.

What makes an incident complex?  It’s not just fighting the fire, which all by itself requires coordination of ground crews, smoke jumpers, and air support.  The Black Forest fire itself grew to 16,000 acres, so an area even larger than that needed to be evacuated.  Those people need to be notified, sometimes through knocking on doors, and those areas need to be secured from looting.  Shelters need to be set up for people who need a place to stay, and that information needs to be communicated.  I hadn’t even thought about the need to provide shelter for large animals, but the Elbert County Fairgrounds is not only sheltering horses and cattle, but also sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas.  At this point, nearly 40,000 people have been evacuated from approximately 20,000 homes.

The situation in Colorado is complex also for the size of the Black Forest fire as well as because they are fighting multiple fires in the region simultaneously.  The state is at a preparedness level of 3 right now.  The maximum is 5, which means that all resources are being actively utilized.  So more than half of all the state’s resources are already being used, which means that the reserves used for fresh start fires are thinly spread over the remainder of the area.  The state continues to have red flag warnings indicating that weather conditions are favorable for ignition and expansion of fires.

The first responders for a fire are always local forces such as fire, police, and sheriff departments.  If the incident commander decides these resources are not sufficient, then he (yes, at this point, I think it’s still almost always he) puts in an order for more support.  Neighboring areas are tapped first, then state, and then regional resources as needed.  There is also a centralized resource management system so that someone coordinates the needs of all the teams working active incidents.  As one example of interagency multilevel cooperation, even though none of the fires is on Forest Service land, the Forest Service has the best access to the really large air tankers that drop the red fire suppressant you see in the fancy photos, so there are several Forest Service air tankers present to help where needed in the state.  The Forest Service also works with the Department of Defense, who provides workhorse C-130 planes to be outfitted with MAFFS- Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, which allow these planes to be used to drop suppressant as well.  (I call C-130 planes workhorses because NOAA uses them to fly their atmospheric sampling missions and those planes are also used to fly back and forth to Antarctica.  Of all the planes in the world, that’s the only one I’ve learned this year!)

DC-10 air tanker.  I've actually met folks from the company who made this one!

DC-10 air tanker. I’ve actually met folks from the company who made this one!


Helicopter with a Bambi Bucket.  I don't know why it's called that, but I love I!

Helicopter with a Bambi Bucket. I don’t know why it’s called that, but I love I!


Colorado also has a wealth of military resources.  The Governor activated the state’s National Guard early in the week, and there is a combination of Guard, active, and reserve military personnel and equipment who all contribute including the air bases, the Air Force Academy, and Fort Carson.  Everyone is contributing what they can.  As of this morning, there were over 1,000 people directly working the fire, which doesn’t even count the people who staff the shelters or probably the information and security functions.

One of the saddest jobs has to be working on the list of homes that are lost.  Black Forest has been a very hot fire with intense burns, so the last estimate that I saw was that over 470 homes have been lost.  To give some perspective, last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 348 homes, and that was previously the most devastating fire in the history of the state.  To give even more perspective, the Waldo Canyon fire was a mere 10 miles from the current Black Forest fire, so this is the second summer that Colorado Springs residents are dealing with the stress and uncertainty of a major fire.

Sometimes information can be overwhelming, and there have definitely been times this past week when I have simply walked away from my computer to take a step back from it all.  It is in my nature, though, to find something positive to carry away with me.  In the magnitude of this crisis, I appreciate the courage of everyone who is coping.  I used to look at a fire that was 5% contained and scoff thinking that it was insignificant.  I now look and see that 5% is more than nothing.  That first bit is called setting an anchor, and it is the starting point for additional fire lines for containment.  I think of everyone from the individual fire fighters to the incident commander, who each must feel that they can’t fight the whole fire at once, but they can make a start and anchor their efforts to do a little more.  I also think of the people who have lost their homes and who each take those small steps to put their lives back together.  With the courage to take those small steps, the fire will eventually be beaten back, and lives and homes can be rebuilt.

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Colorado in Flames

When I started working in a Colorado Senate office last October, one of my very first projects was to write the first draft of a letter to President Obama urging him to fund a program that would help the state recover from its most devastating wildfire season in Colorado’s history in summer 2012.  I look back on that time when I knew so little about forest fires, other than that they were a bad thing, and I can appreciate how much I’ve learned since then.  I’m putting that knowledge and experience to good use since the 2013 forest fire season arrived very abruptly in my adopted state this week.

For months now, I have regularly checked on the US Drought Monitor and on the National Interagency Fire Center websites, but although Colorado has continued to suffer from its second year of drought, the state seemed to have dodged wildfires so far, with all the action focused in California and New Mexico.  That all changed on Monday when temperatures soared into the 90’s, winds gusted, and the relative humidity dropped below 10%.  From my visit to the Rocky Mountain Research Station, I knew that it’s the relative humidity drop that is the most important indicator that fires may expand rapidly.

Between Monday and Tuesday, at least five fires started in the state.  One is on federal land nowhere near structures or communities, so it is being left to burn.  A second was contained quickly.  The other three are the problems.  I learned long ago that when you are far away from an emergency, having a steady stream of information makes you feel less helpless.  Knowing that the Senator was going to want to stay on top of the situation in the state, I started tracking down reliable sources of information and monitoring those data constantly.

At the top of the scary list is the Black Forest Fire, which is burning on the northern end of Colorado Springs.  On Tuesday morning, the fire was a mere 15 acres, but by Wednesday morning, it had expanded to 8,000 acres and estimates were that 80-100 homes were lost.  Thousands of people were under mandatory or pre-evacuation orders.  I ended up following the Twitter feed from the sheriff’s department to follow some of the developments, so I learned that one evacuation site in a church had to be relocated due to heavy smoke.  Taking care of large animals such as horses and llamas was also an issue; the county fairgrounds opened up as a large animal shelter after a local ranch had reached their capacity.

The Black Forest Fire highlights the newest problem with wildfires, and that is the wildland-urban interface, known as the WUI, and pronounced “Woo-ey.”  Homes and communities built adjacent to or within forest are at particular risk from wildfire damage, especially if the land around the structures hasn’t been cleared to form defensible space and if roofs are not specifically made from fire-proof materials.  Structures in the WUI are the most challenging to defend since they tend to be spread out and have heavy fuel loads in the area.  I suspect that the WUI is well-represented in the evacuation areas.

On the East Coast, we are familiar with FEMA’s response to disasters such as hurricanes and tornados, but FEMA also has the ability to do Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) to help with forest fires.  Colorado Governor Hickenlooper requested FMAGS for the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires on Tuesday, and they had been granted by Tuesday night.

The Royal Gorge fire is burning mostly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land unlike the Black Forest Fire, which is on private land.  Thus I was able to track the Royal Gorge fire through the website all day, since that site seems to focus on federally managed crises.  The Royal Gorge fire jumped to 3,800 acres by Wednesday morning, but it was not threatening structures or communities, so it was not causing quite the consternation of the Black Forest Fire.

The third fire, the Big Meadow Fire, started from a lightning strike in Rocky Mountain National Park on Monday afternoon.  The original 2-3 acre fire had blossomed to 300-400 acres by Wednesday morning, and strong wind gusts kept smoke jumpers and water-carrying helicopters grounded all day Tuesday.  That area of the park has suffered from 70-90 % tree mortality because of pine beetle activity, so the fire had ample fuel for expansion.  Although a number of trails were closed, there were no structures threatened here either.

Resources are stretched thin because of the multiple fire starts in such a short timeframe, but I’m impressed with the effective communications among everyone dealing with the fires.  It’s also amazing to be aware of just how many groups contribute to fighting a fire.  The local fire crews and the sheriffs are the front line of defense for suppression and people-management, but the Colorado Army National Guard was activated quickly to help with firefighting, with security, and with flying helicopters to drop giant buckets of water on the flames.  The Forest Service in conjunction with the Department of Defense is bringing online their air tankers, and incident commanders experienced in coping with complex efforts are also brought in to manage resources.  Even locals are doing their best to contribute simply by purchasing bottled water and sports drinks for the fire crews.

I just hope the weather breaks soon since today, Thursday, looks like another hot and dry day.

I can hear my father asking what resources I had open on my web browser, so here’s the list I was working from.        Federal incident update website, Royal Gorge link        Federal incident update website, Big Meadow Fire link        Federal incident update website, Colorado link watching to see if the Black Forest Fire was being added              National Interagency Fire Center- Sit (situation) reports               NIFC Geographic Area Coordination Centers      The State of Colorado’s emergency information website    Rocky Mountain National Park website for updates on the Big Meadows fire            To keep track of local reports

Twitter                                    Following El Paso County Sheriff updates on the Black Forest Fires


I also printed out this map and kept moving it to the top of the pile of papers on my desk to keep track of the fires.



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