I am Knauss Fellow working in the office of Congressman John Garamendi, who represents California’s 8th Congressional District. As someone born and raised in the Lowcountry, my only exposure to the different paradigms of water management/rights in the Western U.S. was in the environmental policy courses I took during my Ph.D. work at UGA. While coastal Georgia and California’s 8th share many issues, like saltwater intrusion and sea level rise, understanding the complexity of Western water rights, the Central Valley Project, and the vast differences in urbanization has been an eye-opening learning experience. The confluence and contrasts between my home and the district I now work for emphasize that solving environmental issues requires understanding and working with cultural, political, economic, and environmental forces.
The influence and interconnectedness of social and ecological systems comes as no surprise to me. My entire doctoral research program was built on this fact, and while it has certainly been a challenge to get up to speed on the past and present socioecological conditions that shape California’s 8th, I have the foundations and intellectual framework to make sense of this thanks to the training I received in graduate school. What has been most difficult so far is making the mental transition away from academia to working in Congress. When I began the Knauss Fellowship 5 months ago I would not have guessed this. I studied local politics during my doctoral research, read extensively on governance and institutions, and was generally invested and interested in national politics in my personal life. I thought I had a solid enough working knowledge of how political institutions operate that the transition from academia to policy would be a relatively smooth one – I was wrong.
Working on the Hill is far from the rhythms and day-to-day activities of being an academic. I spent six years of my life as a Ph.D. student studying a small collection of phenomena deeply, patiently and thoughtfully. Working on the Hill does not allow for the luxury of time, and that has been a struggle for me considering the way I have been trained to think and work. In my new position, I am often called to make decisions with almost no time to critically reflect, gather information and make an informed decision. For example, last week I assisted my boss in preparing for the markup¹ for the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization² bill. Although our office submitted our priorities for the bill back in January, we did not receive the text of the bill until the afternoon June 9, and we had to understand the 800-page bill well enough to meaningfully engage in the process by the morning of June 13. Tasked with so much legislative text and only a weekend to review was a daunting prospect. Worse yet is the reality that I am much closer to being in a position where I could directly impact somebody’s wellbeing or livelihood with the research I conduct. As a fellow there is obviously still a bit of a barrier between myself and these decisions, but I am much closer to them now than I ever was in academia.
Almost halfway through my fellowship I am still trying to find a way to be able to translate the thought and care I could put into something as an academic into my work on the Hill, but it has been difficult. What’s more frightening is that it may not be possible, or, if it is possible, it will take years of working in this institution and familiarizing myself with the set of issues I’m assigned to.
As an academic, I operated in a world of doubt and uncertainty (anyone who is honest about the research process will say as much), but I at least had the time to become versed in the nuance and complexity of what I worked on. On the Hill, I frequently only have a few hours to scratch the surface of a topic. As my boss often reminds me, “None of us are subject matter experts but this doesn’t mean we can’t do a good job.” I hope that is true and I keep working towards feeling the same way. Nonetheless, this fellowship has been an amazing opportunity to live the daily experience of a Congressional staffer. Even if I decide not to stay in Congress and move on to an agency or academic institution where I can get back to the rhythm and pace of work that I operate best in, this experience will prove invaluable and make me more aware of, and sympathetic to, the challenges that Congressional staffers face.
¹ A markup is when a committee gets together to make changes to a bill before recommending it go to the whole House of Representatives for a vote.
² A reauthorization bill is one in which Congress revises the authorities of and sets funding thresholds for various federal agencies.