Obstructing Science in the Senate - Only You Can Stop It

As of this morning, it appears that the nominations of both John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco (the President's picks for Science Advisor and NOAA Administrator, respectively) are still stalled in the Senate. If we don't raise more hell over this issue - and keep raising hell - it's likely that these nominees will remain stuck in limbo for quite some time, and the Administration's efforts to forge a new science and environmental policy will be hampered as a result. Do you want that to happen?

The issue is receiving relatively little attention from the traditional press, but one report yesterday indicated that the nominations were being blocked by multiple Senators. Speaking off the record with several Senate staffers from different offices yesterday, I learned that Senators do not normally officially place their own holds on a nomination if there is an existing hold. However, more than one of the staffers I spoke with indicated that there are holds, plural, keeping the nominations from advancing further.

It is possible for the nominations to move forward despite the holds. Doing that would require two things: 60 votes, and the Majority Leader's willingness to risk irritating another Senator or Senators. So far, Senator Reid's office has not commented when asked if there is any plan to move forward with the nominations.

A NOAA spokesman told me that having the Administrator position unfilled does not prevent NOAA from moving forward, and that their budget shop is currently working on a plan together on how to best use the more than $800 million allocated to NOAA in the stimulus bill. If the Administrator position is not filled when the time comes, they will take the plan on up to the Department of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget. I'm certainly pleased to hear that NOAA does not feel that the situation is creating significant difficulties. However, it's probably worth noting that the Commerce Secretary position is also currently unfilled, that the Office of Management and Budget might be a little busy at the moment, and that there have been reports that some projects are in fact on hold while the department awaits the new Administrator.

As of now, we do not know when - or if - these nominations will move forward. We do not even know for certain who is responsible for the delay. We strongly suspect, based on various leaks, that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez is at least partially responsible, but if there are in fact others we do not know who they are. Under the rules of the Senate, these nominations can be held for a very long time without anyone officially learning who is responsible. The rules require that a Senator makes a hold a matter of open record, but they're not required to do so for six legislative days. If multiple Senators object to a measure, it appears theoretically possible for one Senator to place a hold, drop it at day five, at which point another Senator places a new hold. If this is the case, these nominations could remain blocked for weeks, while we remain ignorant of who is holding up the nominations, and why.

There are a lot of people who are not happy with the situation. Senator Rockefeller chairs the Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over these nominations. He's been quoted on the matter a couple of times already, and has called the situation "infuriating". A number of prominent bloggers have also weighed in on the situation. Most of them have focused on the insanity of the Senate rule that permits these shenanigans or the inappropriateness of holding up unrelated nominations in an effort to impact Cuba policy. Both those issues are certainly important, but they miss something very important. We need these nominees to get on the job if we want to have good science policy.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to briefly discuss this situation with American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Alan Leshner. Dr. Leshner is very concerned about this situation, and how it will impact science policy in these important early days of the new administration. The situation, he told me, is "very problematic", and could create serious difficulties for the Obama Administration's efforts to create new scientific and environmental policy. Science and the environment, Leshner reminded me, are very much involved in our economy and in the recovery plan.

"These nominees," he said, "were named early in recognition of the fact that these issues are so important. If they are not there, a central perspective could be missing."

When I asked him what can be done about the situation, he pointed out that AAAS is a non-profit, and as such it's limited in the role it can play in situations like this, but that individual scientists and people who are interested in science can play an important part in efforts to break up this logjam. "If more people stood up," Leshner said, "that could make a difference."

With that in mind:

I know that I've asked you to do this already - twice - and that some of you might be getting tired of me asking by now. I'm also aware that I'm not the only one asking. But this is important.

This issue has still not gained much traction in the traditional press. The economy, health care, and the antics of a right-wing radio host are all front and center right now, and are likely to stay that way. (The bloviations of Mt. Rushbo are, after all, clearly more important to the future of our country than anything as pedestrian as science policy.) The offices of the various Senators involved in this situation are almost certainly betting that this is a relatively safe issue for them, and that there won't be much attention given to the issue.

If we let this drop, they'll be more than happy to keep on ignoring the problem. If we don't keep the pressure up, we'll really have no right to complain if April or May rolls around without these two nominees being confirmed.

If you called a Senator yesterday or the day before, thank you. Please take a minute or two and make another call today. If you haven't made a call or sent an email yet, please take a couple of minutes to do it today. It really can make a big difference - staffers really do pay more attention to issues that are generating a lot of calls and emails, and they really do keep their bosses in the loop.

If you've got time to get involved, here's what I'd suggest, from most important to least important.

1: Call Harry Reid's Office: He's the majority leader, and can move the nominations forward even if there are holds. If there are multiple holds, that may be the only way these nominees will get confirmed in the near future.

Reid's DC office number is 202-224-3542. There's an email form that you can use to contact the Senator here. Keep in mind, however, that the form requires you to enter a physical address, and that there's a really good chance that emails from non-Nevada residents are filtered. Apropos of nothing, Senator Reid has an office at:

600 East William St, #302

Carson City, NV 89701

2: Spread the Word: There are lots of people who might be interested in the issue, but don't read blogs and don't know about it. Send an email to any of your friends who might possibly be interested, and ask them to take a few minutes to make a phone call or send an email to Reid or to their own Senators. Stick something on the bulletin board at work, make sure that any professional society you belong to knows about this. Pester the other people in your lab if you can. If you can't think of anything else, you might try smoke signals or something. But please try something. The more people we can get involved, the better our chances are at getting something done.

3. Contact your own Senator:

Let's make this an issue for as many members of the Senate as possible. At the least, we should be able to get a few of them to call over to the leadership and apply a little pressure of their own. You can find the contact information for your Senators here.

4. Contact Senator Menendez's Office:

As of this morning's Senate Calendar of Business, nobody has been definitely identified as having a hold on these nominations. However, Menendez has been identified by multiple leaks, so it would be good to keep some of the pressure on.

His office number is 202.224.4744. His email form is available here, but the same caveats about out of state addresses that I mentioned earlier apply. He's got an office in NJ that's located at:

208 White Horse Pike, Suite 18

Barrington, New Jersey 08007

Please Do Something

I know that repeated appeals for action can get tedious, that people are busy, and that calling or emailing one or more Senators every day for an indefinite period kills off valuable time without being in any way fun. If we want things to change, that's what we're going to have to do. Change can start at the ballot box, but it can end there, too. If we want politicians to think that issues we care about are important, we need to show them that we really believe that's true. We can't show people that we believe in an issue if we're not willing to make an effort to push it forward.

This is not a small problem that we're looking at. This is important. Please take a minute or two sometime today to help.


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I don't want to sound incredibly lazy, but often these kind of campaigns come with a pre-written letter.

There is a tradeoff with everyone sending in the same letter, but the volume of emails can get your point across.

By anonymous (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink

I suppose it's fitting that 'anonymous' thinks that anonymous pre-written letters mean anything. But, from a friend who worked in a congressman's office, I can assure you the answer is no.

Write your own letter, express your own interests and concerns. Be sure to remind your Senators that you are indeed in their state. Depending on your state it might also be worthwhile to write your congressperson. Some state delegations communicate between the House and Senate.

As to the NOAA response ... it's foregone that they would answer that way. If they responded that it was a terrible problem for the organization to not have a director, it could be seen as a political statement, and heads would roll. Since Lautenbacher resigned effective Oct 31, 2008, the agency has been without a head. It was also among, I'm told, the last appointments made by the Bush administration, and even later confirmed. So probably the organization can survive even many months or a year (I forget just how late Bush made that appointment).

But, if you'd like to see NOAA do something other than business as usual survival -- say new communications policies and practices, taking new initiatives on the science, distributing the stimulus money other than business as usual, etc. -- time to hit the keyboard or phone.