My first time to Washington, DC was in 8th grade. Several middle schools from my hometown in San Diego had the tradition of sending their matriculating classes to the US Capitol to get a glimpse of what happens at the highest level of governance in our country. Little did I know that 12 years later, I would be part of the process.
The past year of my life has been spent in the Knauss Marine Science Policy Fellowship through NOAA. Before this year, I knew next to nothing about how Congress worked. I had no prior experience in policy or legislation. I was a graduate student who only knew how to use the lab equipment, not how the lab received funding or how science can be dictated at the federal level.
After a placement week in 2015 involving 18 interviews in 2 days (grueling), I was placed in the office of Congressman Sam Farr in the US House of Representatives. Mr. Farr is known as an oceans champion: he founded the Oceans Caucus, fought for coastal protection against marine debris, introduced legislation to increase funding for ocean acidification research, and so much more. It was the perfect office for me to learn a great deal about big picture marine science funding.
Now that it’s over, I wanted to share some of what I learned in a sort of guide for the rest of the science community. It’s not a secret that the next 2-4 years will be a trying time for science, especially when it comes to climate and oceans. But maybe with these tips, we can put in more than a good word for the great blue resource that we all depend on.
Funding is Key
It sounds obvious, especially to those in academia. Funding makes the world go round. The same is true in Congress, where it is called Appropriations. Ever hear of the government “shutting down”? That is due to Appropriations bills not getting passed by both the House and Senate before October 1st, the first day of the new fiscal year. In a typical year, the President’s recommended budget will come out in February (after many months of consultation with agencies) and the House and Senate will come up with Appropriations Bills based on that budget… or not.
Why should you care? EVERY government agency gets funding this way. Let’s take NSF as an example. Many science graduate students depend on funding and grants through this agency. If NSF’s funding is decreased, there’s a chance your funding could be diminished or cut. Or perhaps you are studying ocean acidification, with funding from the Integrated Ocean Acidification Program. Guess what? Another federal program under NOAA. Last year, Republicans in the house tried to decrease funding for that program by 2 million dollars under the previous year, despite President Obama’s recommendation to increase it by over 11 million.
What can you do about this, as citizens? Sadly, not much, given that the budgets are constructed by the majority and behind closed committee doors, and amended later. The Appropriations cycle usually starts around February – this year, things are a little up in the air (I leave this to your imagination). The cycle will probably begin mid March or April. What you can do is contact your congressmen and women, and tell them to support funding for ocean science.
If you want to get really in depth and like to track funding over various years, check out the NOAA Blue Books. Here’s the one for Fiscal Year 2017. Take a look at the charts at the end for a better idea of what programs typically get less funding (*cough* ocean ones).
Issues to Watch
I wrote a previous article on National Ocean Policy, which I encourage you to check out here. It was an executive order by President Obama that essentially mandates that agencies or organizations with jurisdiction over the ocean talk to each other. It is one issue that is continually attacked as being over-regulatory, and will certainly be attacked as Drumpf continues to dish out his own executive orders. But the marine and environmental policies we should be concerned about extend far beyond that.
For one example, the Clean Water Act of 1972 established the structure for regulating discharge of pollutants into US waters. It also gave the EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs, such as setting wastewater standards for industry. Unfortunately, certain members of congress are backed by companies that produce pollutants, and seek to undermine these regulations.
One of their first targets was the Stream Protection Rule, put in place by President Obama. The rule provides the monitoring of streams, many of which are drinking water sources, for pollutants such as lead, arsenic, selenium and manganese that are typical discharged by coal and strip mining. With a Republican-controlled Congress and Presidency, Congress used a seldom-used tool called a Congressional Review Act (CRA). If passed by both chambers within a certain timeframe and signed by the president, a CRA can repeal a rule and then mandate that no rule that is “substantially the same” can be passed without an act of Congress. This would void the essential public comment and stakeholder engagement process that goes into a rulemaking.
While a CRA is vague – how do you define what “substantially the same” actually means? – this is something happening now in Congress, attacking various important environmental regulations, that is important to keep an eye on and speak up about.
Tracking Legislation and Making the Call
The idea of tracking every single piece of legislation that is introduced sounds incredibly daunting. In fact, it’s almost impossible unless it is your job. If you are like most people, you only hear about harmful legislation once it gets noticed by news or environmental groups. What if I told you that you could be the one to find those harmful bills and alert your fellow scientists to them?
It’s actually quite easy… at least on the House side, which is where my experience lies. To be frank, that’s where most of the harmful legislation originates anyway. If you follow these steps, you can keep an eye on what legislation is coming to the House Floor for a vote, and you can decide what action to take from there.
- Check out the House Rules Committee website every few days while you have your morning coffee. Active bills that are soon coming up for a vote will be highlighted on the main page – you can read a short summary of them there and then click on the links for ones that may interest you. You can also track these bills on Congress.gov, and from there, you can find out which Member introduced the bill, who is cosponsoring it, and the full text.
- Once you identify a potentially helpful or harmful bill, plug the title into Google to see what other sources may be tracking it. You can find out more useful information this way.
- Make a phone call to your own Senator or Representative (calling someone who doesn’t represent your state or district won’t help). Many people think that writing letters or emails is the better option because it is concrete. FALSE. A phone call forces someone to listen to you, rather than throw out a letter, or notice another notification in their email database. Hundreds of people calling in about an issue can be extremely disruptive, and that is the goal: get noticed. Keep in mind, the person answering your call is likely an unpaid intern, so be nice, not rude. Simply say, “I would like Congressman/woman X to support this bill because…” Keep it simple. They will take down your message and add it to the tally.
I hope this guide will get you started on your journey to engage and speak up about the environment. It’s not all bad news – there are bills introduced every day to actually protect the environment, such as Senator Nelson’s bill, S. 74: the Marine Oil Spill Prevention Act, or Rep. Huffman’s bill, H.R. 169: the West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2017. Still, these bills will be hard fought against a Republican majority. It is more important than ever to get in touch with those who represent you at a federal level, and ask them to vote with Earth’s future in mind.