Forget textbook descriptions of the legislative process and toss out preconceptions about how to get things done in Washington, a former congressional leader and a current member of Congress told a record class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows as they prepared for a year in Washington agencies and congressional offices.
They warned that legislative politics have been changing in fundamental ways, both in style and expectations. A hard-headed emphasis on party above all has made compromise on tough issues much more challenging and is eroding the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, said Mickey Edwards, who served in Congress from 1977 to 1993 and was a member of the House Republican leadership.
“Something different has happened,” Edwards said. “It’s party versus party, all the time.” Congressional leaders worry foremost about increasing their party’s numbers in the next election cycle, he said. And if their party is in power in the White House, he said, the legislators see themselves more as cheerleaders for the president than as independent checks against the executive branch.
Edwards spoke on 8 September during orientation for the 255 members of the 2011-12 class of S&T Policy Fellows, the largest in the 39-year history of the program. The Fellows bring expertise and problem-solving skills to Capitol Hill and federal agencies while learning first-hand about the workings of government. Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and a former Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Physical Society, told the Fellows they are starting their work at “an interesting time, not necessarily a good time, but a time when we need you more than ever.”
Holt noted that the rancorous debate over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling—a debate that brought the government to the brink of default—led Congress to do “something dreadful.” The debt ceiling agreement, he said, was “the worst piece of legislation that I have seen in my lifetime.” He said it was based on what he called the “un-American” premise that “we’re in tough times and therefore we must tighten our belt, lower our sights, and admit to ourselves that we’re a poor, debtor nation.”
“This is a country that has never said we’re not going to work to make the next generation better,” Holt said. “I hope this was just a passing phase that you will have a role in getting us out of.” Holt called on the Fellows to help “recapture the truly American characteristic that we’re about progress and we get there by thinking like scientists.”
Throughout American history, Holt said, farmers, merchants, and factory workers have “idolized and emulated the inventors and the scientists” by thinking about how things work and how they can make them better. There has been a support for investment in research that now is threatened with substantial cuts.
“You’re needed to help people throughout the government understand the positive role that the government can play,” Holt told the Fellows. He urged them to help make investment a meaningful word in the political vocabulary and not a code word for wasteful spending.
But Holt, a physicist who had been assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory before running for office, also cautioned that the empirical ways of knowing familiar to scientists will take them only so far in Washington.
“There is a natural tendency for scientists to come in and say, whether you know you are doing it or not, that we know better,” Holt said. For better or worse, legislation and regulations arise from the struggle of competing interests, he said. “The genius of our American governmental system is that it moves toward a validation and a recognition of who is deserving that you can’t apply a priori,” he said.
In undertaking their fellowships, Holt urged the scientists to recognize that “there are different ways of knowing things.” While biologist Lewis Thomas called science “the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works,” Holt said, it is not the only way of knowing.
“If you think of things as a balancing of competing interests, you will be able to lose some of your preconceptions about what must be done and what is right,” Holt said.
Edwards gave a sobering account of how that battle of competing interests is playing out in a changed political environment on Capitol Hill. In the days when Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr., a Boston Democrat, was Speaker of the House, Edwards said, there were lengthy debates on bills, often with numerous amendments, but compromises were hammered out and legislation passed.
Former Representative Mickey Edwards speaks to the 2011-12 class of AAAS S&T Policy Fellows.
“It was more like baseball than football,” Edwards said. “There wasn’t a clock.” There was a mutual sense that “we have to figure out what to do.” More recently, Edwards said, the driving force in American politics has become “how do you win, how do you defeat the other guy?”
Edwards, who represented Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district, said that now, whether the vote is on an economic stimulus package, or a Supreme Court nominee, or the health care bill, “you see all Democrats on one side and all Republicans on the other.”
The divisions began in earnest when former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) began bringing bills to the floor with “closed” rules that did not allow amendments, said Edwards, who served as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, the party’s fourth-ranking leadership position. The practice continued during the Republican rule of Speaker Newt Gingrich, and leaders of both the House and Senate have continued to restrict minority amendments to pending legislation.
“A lot of the blame falls on my party,” Edwards acknowledged. He has given current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) credit for promising Democrats more opportunities to bring amendments to the floor, but Edwards says it is time for both parties to have equal representation on the Rules Committee which sets the ground rules for floor debates. As it is now, the committee is dominated by the party in power.
Edwards told the Fellows his three guidelines for making decisions when he served in Congress: What do the people believe? How do you evaluate the issues that come before you? What does the Constitution permit or prohibit?
On most issues, he said, he followed the wishes of his constituents unless he felt they were really wrong or misinformed. But in a system that has made cooperation and civility increasingly difficult, Edwards said, the incentives now are for members to respond to the “squeaky wheel,” the interest groups and party activists who drive the primary process and tend to be uninterested in finding common ground with their political opponents.
Holt, while noting the charged atmosphere in Washington these days, gave the Fellows a pep talk and some encouragement. “Drink deeply of what Washington has to offer,” he told them. “Don’t resist it.”
Members of Congress and most Americans “have taken themselves out of the game” on matters scientific, Holt said. “There are a lot of things that someone who thinks like a scientist will see that others don’t,” he said. And the contributions can come in areas that are not explicitly involved with science, whether offering advice on how to improve voting technology, assessing the impact of floods, or discussing airline routing maps with the Federal Aviation Administration. There is no substitute, Holt said, for being able to ask questions so that they can be answered empirically and verifiably.
Holt’s own career as a politician arose from a deep desire to get involved and some family precedents. His father was elected a U.S. senator from West Virginia at age 29, the youngest person ever to be elected to the Senate. His mother was the first woman to serve as secretary of state for West Virginia. Holt himself was given little chance of winning during his first campaign in 1998, but he became the first Democrat to win his New Jersey district in two decades. He has been re-elected five times since. He offered the Fellows a clear-headed assessment of the job.
“This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, harder intellectually than physics, harder psychologically, even harder physically than anything I’ve ever done,” Holt said.
Why did he do it? “It was partly the challenge,” he said. “I do think that politicians are a kind of entrepreneur. It takes a drive, and persistence like anything else and more fail than succeed. So it’s an area where the success rate isn’t high. But until we reach that golden age when everybody can deal intelligently with scientific topics, we need more trained scientists in Congress.”
Holt encouraged any Fellows with an interest in public office to “go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy.” He talked of a demanding schedule, frequent travel, the constant need to make calls to donors for campaign funds, the necessity of learning to listen to people you might prefer to avoid but who happen to be your constituents. “It’s not an easy life, but it is the most satisfying thing I have ever done or that I can imagine doing,” Holt said.
Meet a few members of the 2011-2012 class of AAAS S&T Fellows, and learn what they hope to accomplish in Washington.
Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program.
Read more about members of the 2011-12 class of AAAS S&T Policy Fellows.