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Now I'll get to see how sausage is made...

By Howard Shaffer 2000-01 ANS Congressional Fellow at the House Committee on Science, Energy Subcommittee

“Now I’ll get to see how sausage is made,” I thought when the American Nuclear Society told me I’d won their Congressional Fellowship in 2000. The German statesman Bismarck is supposed to have said, “Laws are like sausages.  It’s better not to see them being made.” But I was eager for the opportunity to find out. Having been actively involved in issues surrounding the intersection of technology and policy regarding nuclear power, I believed I had some knowledge of the political process. For the last 18 years, I have been involved in the nuclear debate and in associated issues professionally as well as through local politics. I was a town Democratic Committee chair, a state convention delegate and I participated in several campaigns including one that prevented the closure of all Massachusetts nuclear power plants.

When I started my fellowship with the Energy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science in January of this year, I was assigned a range of legislative and oversight responsibilities. The committee staffers often have more longevity in their positions than do the staffs of Members of Congress, so they have the opportunity to follow issues and build up expertise over the years. I wanted that kind of exposure so I chose a committee assignment rather than one with a Member of Congress. The House passed its energy bill, H.R. 4, just before the August recess and, in the months preceding passage, I learned how much goes into the passage of a bill, from the subcommittee’s work on this high visibility issue. There were many hearings in the House and Senate, visits by interested parties, and research by the staff in preparation for drafting legislation. I sat in on negotiating sessions between the majority and minority staffs of the Science Committee to develop what turned out to be the Science Committee’s section of the final energy bill. The Rules Committee negotiated with committees of jurisdiction to assemble the final bill from a number of separate bills.

I was likewise involved with a few constituent issues. One individual approached us with the suggestion for an improved hydro turbine, which I researched and discovered was already a program goal under the Department of Energy. I was also involved in a Science Committee hearing that addressed energy conservation in California via daylight savings time, a topic raised in response to the state’s energy crisis. My research examined how citizens’ behavior and use of energy is influenced by daylight.

My year as a Fellow is nearly over. The insight I’ve gained into how the legislative process actually works will be valuable to my future career goals. For scientists or engineers who believe that scientific facts are of primary importance in legislation with a technical component, a fellowship on Capitol Hill can be a real eye opener. I have observed the range of inputs that go into legislation and realize that scientific facts are often in conflict with political reality. The Congress also works at such a fast pace, that it allows only a very short time period to gather critical, accurate information.  Bismarck was right! However, there is nothing wrong with sausage. The process looks messy and people are squeamish about it, but what is the alternative?

The author is a 2000-01 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Nuclear Society, one of 30 societies that participate in the AAAS program. He has a M.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scientists and engineers working in the Congress find the pace frantic, the tensions often palpable, and the political trade-offs sometimes eye-opening. Observing this firsthand goes along with the opportunity to bring good technical information to bear on congressional decision-making, while learning about the legislative process. That mix produces what many AAAS Congressional Fellows describe as the most stimulating year of their professional lives. AAAS administers 10 public policy fellowship programs in Congress and a dozen executive branch agencies. For personal experiences that provide insight into the characteristics of each program, I urge you to visit our Web site:  

Claudia J. Sturges - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.