Comment: The Congressional ecosystem: A paleontologist's perspective

by Emma Locatelli
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Credit: Callan Bentley, 2017.

At the height of the 2016 presidential election, the nation’s eyes were on Washington, D.C., and prominent voices were critical of the Capital. “Washington is full of fossils” and “the swamp is rotten” were common refrains all along the political spectrum. Who better to head to Congress than a paleontologist with a specialty in soft-tissue preservation? I spent years dealing with fossils and rot. I was prepared for anything — or so I thought.

I was eager to begin my fellowship as the American Geosciences Institute’s William L. Fisher Congressional Geoscience Fellow and gain a better understanding of the mechanics behind federal policymaking. I was excited to participate in the policymaking process and contribute my expertise as a trained scientist and geologist in crafting smart, evidence-based legislation. While I was fortunate to have visited the Hill several times previously, using those experiences as a basis for understanding the legislative process would be like attempting to view an entire paleoecosystem by looking at a single species. The best way to understand paleoecology is to look at an in situ assemblage and analyze it in its stratigraphic context. Similarly, you need to see all the different players on the Hill interacting within the halls of Congress to understand how it all functions.

After a two-week orientation, I quickly was placed through a matching process in the office of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and joined the Energy and Environment team in the office.

One of the first things I had to learn was the ecology of the office. The senators, obviously, are the keystone species: Their policy concerns and directives tie the work of the office together. Three subsystems revolve around them. Each has an important purpose, and while there is communication among the three, each functions more or less independently in advancing the senators' main purpose of serving the citizens of their state.

The legislative team members, of which I was one, are the primary producers in the office. We autotrophs work behind the scenes to form the policy that supports the senators' goals. The administrative and communications teams are heterotrophs. Communications teams take in the senators' policies, actions and statements and repackage them for use in the public sphere. The administrative teams work to ensure the system is running smoothly and the senators are able to effectively push their policies forward. The chiefs of staff are the apex predators, and part of their job is to use the work of the legislative and communications teams to bolster the political arm of the senators' work.

Once I understood the form and function of the office as an ecosystem, I could place that in a larger stratigraphic context. The major sequence boundaries delineating cycles of events are the start and end of a Congress (a two-year period; we began the 115th Congress in January 2017). At the end of a Congress, bills that have not passed become part of the fossil record, and must be completely reintroduced in the next Congress: This break forms the major sequence boundary between Congresses.

Within a single Congress, the first-order control on how the Senate functions on a day-to-day basis is whether it is in session or in recess. During a session, the Senate is an actively aggrading system, accumulating new ideas and pieces of legislation. The Hill becomes inundated with constituents, lobbyists and organizations all advocating for their different causes. Legislative hearings are held, votes are cast, and policy is made. When Congress is in recess (a hiatus), in contrast, this aggradation ceases and unconformities develop. However, just like in the sedimentary record, a lot can happen during this time of nondeposition — or, in some instances, even erosion — of previously laid policy ideas and objectives.

The second-order control on the operations of the Senate is politics — a conglomerate of different interests and concerns that are not always tied to a Democratic-Republican dichotomy. Politics can be defined by any number of other factors. How an office approaches an issue politically can be dictated by a combination of influences, from its constituency, geography, local industries and economic drivers, and senator’s interests. As a result, senators on opposite ends of the political spectrum can become steadfast partners on some issues if it makes sense for their respective states, or on issues important to the nation, such as national security or natural disasters.

Finally, the third-order control on how policy is developed is one’s own network and relationships. Just as interpretations of ancient ecosystems are improved with a diversity of fossils, policy is best developed by working with multiple perspectives. The larger the network, the better input on legislation a staffer is able to get. This year, I had the opportunity to meet and work with colleagues from around the country and from very different backgrounds.

So how is policy made? Legislation generally serves to help the U.S. adapt to problems, be they existing or anticipated. The underlying process of Congress is akin to natural selection: It prevents harmful legislation from getting through, while good policy survives and is passed. Some legislation is predictable and occurs on a regular cycle, such as the budget, Farm Bill and agency reauthorization bills. But the evolution of other bills begins in the primordial soup of economics, current events and constituent concerns. Out of the primordial soup will crawl ideas to solve these problems, and they will begin to work their way through the legislative system. It is at this point that scientific input and expertise are most critical; my role in the senator’s office has been to ensure that the ideas we present have a sound scientific basis. I am lucky — my office doesn’t take science for granted and was happy to hear my input.

Some of these ideas will evolve into bills, which are introduced by a senator or representative. Most bills go extinct at this stage, but some legislation will survive and move on to the next epoch in the process: the committee hearing. This is the point at which members of Congress debate the bill’s merits and faults, hear from experts on the policy topic, and offer amendments (mutations) to improve the legislation. After the hearing, bills may be voted on. If the committee votes in favor of the bill, it will then be voted on by the entire chamber; if not, the bill is buried for the rest of the Congress. Bills that pass out of one chamber will go to the other and the process repeats. If both the Senate and House pass the bill, the bill is transported to the president’s desk, where it may be signed into law or vetoed into extinction. During the course of my fellowship, I’ve been involved at many steps in this process: I’ve helped to introduce several bills on everything from drought to water efficiency and conservation programs to scientific integrity; I’ve prepared my boss for debates on various bills; and I’ve provided recommendations for both committee and full chamber votes.

As my fellowship era comes to an end, the work I have done and bills I have helped write will hopefully move on and become law one day in the future. I have brought a paleontologist’s critical eye, ability to hammer through tough situations, and drive to solve complex problems to the Senate, and I’ve helped ensure that the work and decisions made by my senator are grounded on scientific bedrock. I have gained valuable insight and understanding of congressional systems processes and the role of science in policymaking, and I plan to utilize this knowledge in my upcoming fellowship in another new ecosystem: the State Department. All in all … this year rocked.

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