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Final Report: 2002–2003 Congressional Science Fellow

by Rafael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 14, no. 3 (March 2004)

My fellowship year was spent in the office of Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis, representing the 32nd district of California. Congresswoman Solis is a second-term Democrat with political views that put her at the far left of the current congressional spectrum. While previous fellows have chosen to work in more powerful and more politically moderate offices, such as that of Senator Joe Lieberman, my choice to work in this untested office was made for a number of reasons, and I am happy to recommend this office to future fellows. Some background on the congresswoman will help justify my position.

Congresswoman Solis is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who raised her in the district she now represents. The 32nd district is largely made up of low-income Hispanic and Asian recent immigrants. The congresswoman served in the California Legislature for 8 years before she was encouraged to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against an incumbent Democrat in her district. She won both her general elections by a wide margin. As a Latina with strong loyalty to the Democratic Party and strong support of unions and recent immigrants, Congresswoman Solis is being watched closely by Democratic Party leadership. This was most clearly illustrated by her selection to serve on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee at the beginning of her second term, an almost unprecedented achievement. Moreover, on that committee, she was entrusted to serve as the ranking member (highest ranking member from the Democratic Party) of the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials.

What do all these political considerations have to do with earth sciences? As it turns out, quite a bit. As is often the case in areas of poverty, Congresswoman Solis' district is marked by some of the worst environmental degradation in the country, including poor air quality, lack of open space, and groundwater that is characterized as a Superfund site due to industrial contamination. Looming environmental problems in the district include heavy perchlorate contamination related to rocket fuel production, contamination from the gasoline additive MTBE, and failure to comply with Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits set by the Clean Water Act. In this regard, Congresswoman Solis' rise to the ranks of the Energy and Commerce Committee is extremely important. Her subcommittee has jurisdiction over Superfund issues, leaking underground storage tanks, and the Clean Drinking Water Act.

During the year I spent with Congresswoman Solis, we worked on trying to provide more money for cleanup of MTBE and developing new regulations to prevent future spills. This money has been tied to passage of the comprehensive energy bill, which is still stalled in Congress as of this writing. Some of our modest proposals, such as requiring installation of secondary containment for underground storage tanks at the time when they are replaced, were stalled by objections from private interests, such as representatives of the convenience store operators. On the issue of perchlorate, we were also frustrated by attempts to exempt the military-by far the largest producer of perchlorate waste-from federal environmental laws.

Our one success on the environmental front was seeing the passage of Congresswoman Solis' San Gabriel River Watershed Study Act. This act would require the Secretary of Interior to study the San Gabriel River Watershed for inclusion in the federal system of National Parks, scenic trails, historic sites, recreation areas or other designation. Although a modest step, the congresswoman was very excited about passage of this law because her district has less than one-half acre of open space for every 1,000 people, making it one of the most urbanized areas of the country.

Even on issues where the congresswoman did not have a leadership role, such as global climate change, her interest in maintaining a strong environmental record and being informed on environmental issues gave me the opportunity to keep close watch on developments. During my year in Washington, no firm commitments to reduce greenhouse gases were proposed by the White House. However, a major climate change science initiative known as the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) was introduced for discussion at a conference attended by thousands of scientists from across the spectrum of the earth sciences. The initiative was also reviewed by the National Academies, whose initial report echoed the concerns of many scientists I conferred with: that the initiative lacked clear goals or timetables, left out vital areas of research, and most important, was severely under-funded. Although the funding issue will be ongoing, a revision of the CCSP that begins to address the criticisms was recently released.

At the same time, meaningful progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions was stalled and in many cases, reversed. Efforts to mandate increases in Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for light trucks and cars were repeatedly defeated while tax breaks for the largest sport utility vehicles were increased to $100,000. I was especially disappointed that the Environmental Protection Agency's draft report on the state of the environment completely left out global climate change (despite including other global issues such as ozone depletion) under pressure from the White House.

As a congressional science fellow, I had the unique opportunity to witness these events near the source. I sat on committee hearings and in behind-closed-doors negotiations, and I directly questioned representatives from executive agencies on matters related to regulations, policy proposals, and budgets. I learned that science rarely carries the day in policy decisions. I saw that well-researched, empirically derived figures, such as the rate of spread of an MTBE plume or the extent of perchlorate contamination in western groundwater, mean little when put up against the lobbying power of industry groups or political pressure from party leaders. This could leave a scientist in a cynical state, but I see it as justification to continue sending scientists to work on the Hill and serve as policy advisors. I believe that relative to other professions, scientists have barely made inroads into the political process. Although a number of professional societies support congressional science fellows, there are still far more congressional offices that do not have a scientist on staff than those that do.

I felt that in this regard, working for a new congresswoman was especially important, as it made her comfortable with the idea of having a scientist on staff. If there is a change in party control, she will have the most power of any congressperson when it comes to issues of vital concern to earth scientists. I trust that she will turn to a scientist and consider their advice carefully when she is forced to make a decision between data and politics.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Raphael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government.