How Retiring Members of Congress Can Help Fight Climate Change

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Feb. 18 2014 11:40 AM

How Retiring Members of Congress Can Help Fight Climate Change

Take the policy discussion out of the Beltway and to the districts.

Harry Waxman, overlooking Los Angeles Smog
Retiring Rep. Henry Waxman, overlooking Los Angeles smog.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The other night I ran into a friend from my foreign policy days on Capitol Hill. Together, we lamented the upcoming retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Congress’ premier champion of taking action on our planet’s catastrophic weather trends. He co-sponsored climate legislation in 2009 with then–Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that passed the House but was defeated in the Senate. Since my friend is an environmental policy expert, I asked her advice on what we can do to rebuild momentum on the issue. Her take: “Stop saying the word climate, for starters. Focus on local impacts.”

She’s right. Congress can take a step forward and answer this threat with a response, but not in Washington. If Americans want Congress to be both accountable and representative, we must take Congress—and the oversight functions it has abandoned—into the states. National Journal recently reported that today 46 percent of all House staffers operate outside the Beltway. That’s good news because it creates access outside of Washington. But members aren't hiring policy experts. This means that if we want knowledge to be part of a rigorous, deliberative system that serves the public interest, we have to do it for them. We must build a policymaking support system outside of the nation’s capital.

Congress' inadequacy on complex policy challenges like disruptive weather is not for lack of trying. Waxman requested 21 hearings on climate in the last session of Congress alone. He's in the Democratic minority, which doesn't control the agenda in the House.  Yet back in their districts, nearly all members can be persuaded to listen to constituent concerns, especially expert judgment. Today, neither Democrats nor Republicans have many opportunities to individually act on this issue within the confines of an antique and incapacitated institution. Congress eliminated its Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. Today, Congress as a whole has 40 percent fewer staff than in 1979, and on top of that, members receive up to 1,000 percent more incoming correspondence, thanks to things like email. Meanwhile, committee jurisdictions create sizable blind spots—Congress is set up to see the world of yesterday. It is far more prepared to combat Napoleon in Prussia than a category 5 hurricane bearing down on New Orleans.

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But there are bright spots. The House has the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition and the Safe Climate Caucus, for example. Markey became a senator last July and immediately set up a Climate Change Clearinghouse in the upper chamber. These informal organizations can’t provide oversight, but they do improve foresight. They provide a good list of interested leaders and are natural on-ramps for connecting policymakers to the outside world. Another way to jump-start the deliberative process?  Field hearings across the United States.

Waxman is one of 24 members of Congress who have so far announced that they are retiring. That makes them lame ducks, right? Not at all: They are the hope for movement on catastrophic weather. Freed from the constraints of fundraising and the need to please leadership, these individuals have influential committee assignments and lots of institutional currency. Chiefly, they still have the power to convene. 

Here is a map of retiring members organized by weather category. The asterisk denotes a committee chair. These individuals have both the budget and the power to do hearings wherever they’d like. The others still have lots of convening potential. Go to the members’ site and click on the "about" link to discover the member's committee assignments. This is where he or she has the most influence.

Here's the plan: If you want action on freaky weather, organize a field hearing with your local retiring member of Congress for some time in March through June—which are the typical months for investigations and oversight in the legislative calendar. Call your hearing the "Community Resilience Roadmap." Why call it that? Because the military and the Department of Homeland Security are already using this language, and corroborating their priorities in public deliberations will give the issue tremendous cover when it does make it back to Capitol Hill. A nationwide set of state- and district-based hearings will serve a vital purpose—to highlight a specific issue in a region where it has immediate relevance. Here’s a sample agenda from a field hearing on the recent West Virginia chemical spill.

Decentralized yet institutional field hearings will provide a hugely valuable resource for making the case for legislative action later. Most important, they will focus attention locally while educating Congress in a way that it understands. If your Republican member won’t touch the issue, see if you can get the Democratic senator to do it, as he or she controls committees. Another option? Organize a rump hearing—a gathering led by a member that has all the trappings of a regular hearing—only without the legal authority. Make sure the witnesses are reputable and diverse. And no open microphones! Use social media to increase participation and put it on the record. In fact, whoever moves first should start a shared space at Participedia.

Technology and transparency have fundamentally changed the way information flows everywhere. So why not Congress? Lacking its own expertise, the legislative branch could especially use the benefits of collective knowledge. Science lovers, this is your moment! After being bamboozled by policymakers for a decade, science is flourishing. Citizen science is everywhere, from National Geographic's frog watch and bud burst projects to open.nasa.gov, and should become part of the information presented in hearings. Hackathons are becoming as commonplace as bake sales for helping communities grapple with big data in the public interest. Positioning Congress so it can be smarter and more inclusive won’t just help us fight climate change—it will help create a new model of government engagement on complicated policy issues.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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