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2012 SPS National Interns
2012 Interns | Past Interns | About the Program

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Name Jonathan Morris
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Mather Policy Intern: Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) Legislative Office
Jonathan's Twitter Feed: @JMorrisAIP
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I am a rising senior at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, where I am pursuing bachelors degrees in physics and political science. I am involved in undergraduate research studying gene regulation networks, and I volunteer for multiple grassroots political organizations, where I am engaged in attempting to raise awareness and increase youth participation in the political process.

Although I am originally from Saint Louis, MO, I've enjoyed my time in the Twin Cities. Attending a university in an urban environment can be challenging, especially when it comes to parking, but it also opens up a tremendous opportunity to learn from members of the community outside the traditional University paradigm. I look forward to completing my senior year, and especially the opportunity to take on leadership roles on campus during election season. I am also anticipating the process of applying to graduate programs in the fall, although I am as of yet unsure of both where and what type of program would interest me most.

In my free time, I enjoy watching soccer, laughing at the Daily Show and Colbert Report, riding my longboard, and listening to music.

~Jonathan

Name Jonathan Morris
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Mather Policy Intern: Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) Legislative Office
Jonathan's Twitter Feed: @JMorrisAIP
Follow SPS on: Twitter Facebook YouTube Photobucket The Nucleus Email and Share
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8
Week 9 Final Reflections

Week 1, June 8, 2012

It’s been a busy and exciting first week here in Washington, DC. As this is my first time in DC, I’d heard quite a bit from friends who have all had various experiences here, but nothing quite compares to actually arriving for the first time. I flew in on Sunday and took the Metro to George Washington University, where all the SPS interns are housed for the summer. After unpacking and a quick shopping trip to acquire items I didn’t have room for in my luggage (hangars & a pillow), I met up with the other SPS interns for the first time and went to dinner. Monday morning began early with a commute out to the American Institute of Physics’ headquarters, the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. The morning consisted of orientation, including introductions to the AIP organization and their programs, and meeting Dr. John Mather, who endowed the Mather Internship program. The SPS interns also got to have lunch with Dr. Mather, where I got a chance to explain my research at the University of Minnesota to a Nobel Laureate.

internlunch
 
Following orientation, I met Jennifer Greenamoyer in person for the first time. We soon departed for Capitol Hill to introduce Allen, the other Mather Intern, to his placement with the minority office for the House of Representatives Space, Science, and Technology committee. Jennifer and I met with Dahlia Sokolov, a previous AIP Congressional Fellow, and I got my first taste of lobbying and the policymaking process on the Hill.

Because I did not arrive in DC with a placement in hand, my own situation was somewhat different than Allen’s this first week. I had interviewed with Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ)’s legislative office but did not expect to receive a decision until the end of the week. Therefore, I have essentially been in job-seeking mode, and have pursued several options to find a placement for the summer. The morning following orientation, I had the opportunity to meet with Francis Slakey, a professor at Georgetown and the Associate Director Public Affairs at the American Physical Society in an attempt to find a project to work on for the summer. APS is beginning on an outreach campaign to involve citizens in alerting their representatives to the importance of funding science and technology research, and we discussed the possibility of working on implementing that program.

On Wednesday, I attended a Bipartisan Policy Center discussion on nuclear waste management, which had the chair and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in attendance. After the event, I spoke with the BPC staff member about interning with them to help prepare their report on implementing the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Council on America’s Nuclear Future report discussed at the event. 

Thursday I took my first trip to the Capitol, accompanying members of the Physics Olympiad team on congressional visits. It was my first time in the Capitol as well, so we got to learn together. After spending the morning with several members of the Physics Olympiad team (20 high school students are selected from across the country) I was certainly impressed by their talents. They seemed to be able to hold a conversation about current research in physics as well as many of my peers at the University of Minnesota. After the visits, I struck out on my own in the congressional office buildings to introduce myself in person to Rep. Andrews’ staff that I had interviewed with the previous week. Upon walking into their office, I found out in person that I had received a placement in their office. I will start on Monday.

The first week has flown by – it feels like I just stepped off the plane yesterday, but now I feel like I know my way around the city and have had my first taste of life in DC. It’s perpetually busy and exciting and even though it is already Friday, I feel like I’ve finally gotten time to do some actual work, including drafting communication with Rep. Holt (D-NJ)’s office regarding an entry into the congressional record about the Physics Olympiad team and writing my journal for the first week. I look forward to having tonight and the weekend to get to play tourist for the first time and see some of the sights, monuments, and museums around the Mall.

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Week 2, June 15, 2012

After a weekend of getting to play tourist in DC, this week I began working in Congressman Robert Andrews (D-NJ)’s office. The House was out of session this week, meaning there were fewer meetings than normal in the office and no votes were scheduled. This gave the new interns a chance to get up to speed and get to know the office before a week in session hit – when things are very busy. On my first day, I submitted all the necessary paperwork to register for various training sessions and administrative items, including the Capitol Visitor Center tour training, the Congressional Research Service training, and procuring my official ID badge.

Once all the paperwork had been taken care of, the task of learning to answer the phones, deal with mail, and all the other intern tasks began in earnest. Although answering the phones sounds quite simple, the nuances are somewhat more complex. It certainly helps to actually know all the staff in the office that constituents, lobbyists, and other government organizations call for and to recognize important calls. The volume of mail the office receives is incredible – many trade journals, union newsletters, newspapers, reports from other government agencies, and constituent mail. Knowing the projects the legislative assistants are working on certainly helps when sorting through mail and identifying anything that might be useful and getting it to the proper legislative assistant. Constituent mail is logged into a database to keep track of all correspondence and casework.

On Tuesday, I was able to pick up my ID and feel official. However, the ID isn’t something to wear outside of work – there’s even a blog called Spotted that tracks sightings of interns doing things that don’t reflect well upon themselves or the office they work for. One recent entry describes sighting an intern wearing their badge to the baseball game. It’s not some all-access-pass to the country – it just lets you use the staff entrances to the congressional office buildings and staff security lines. I got to attend my first briefing, for the Congressional Art Competition, and take notes to relay to the legislative correspondent. I learned how to look for interesting policy briefings and committee meetings, and the all-important notices of what food to expect. Just like college, free food certainly results in well-attended briefings.
After a few days, I got to know the office staff and they began delegating more responsibility to me, varying from looking up budget lines in defense appropriation and authorization bills to check for consistency, to researching entire bills to make recommendations to the Congressman about his decision to vote yes or no on the bill. I’ve found that even simple bills with no more than a few sentences take thorough research to fully understand all the consequences and reasoning behind them.

On Wednesday, Allen (the other Mather intern) and I had coffee with two of the AAAS Congressional Fellows, Anna and Jason. It was nice to be able to analyze the legislative process with others with formal physics training – certain comparisons take someone else with a physics background to make any sense. They both had interesting things to say and certainly gave me some food for thought in my career and educational goals (and how they relate). I also attended a AAAS lecture on neuroscience research and policy, where at the reception, I got to speak with a lobbyist and learn about his take on the field and the process.

By Thursday, I felt like I’d gotten the hang of the basics of interning here on the Hill. In addition to noticing something in the mail that my intern coordinated and legislative director agreed that we should make an entry into the congressional record about, I managed to attend an interesting briefing on public transportation and federal policy that served lunch. I then got to draft and submit the entry I’d brought to their attention. I also received the copy of Francis Slakey’s book I’d ordered after meeting him last week. I couldn’t put it down and am already most of the way through it. I certainly hope I get the chance to speak with him again while I’m in DC this summer – he’s climbed El Cap and summited the highest peaks on every continent. Growing up, I’d had to wait until I was old enough to be allowed to lead at the climbing gym – this time, I would hope to get to speak about his experiences outside of public policy.
Friday whilst out of session was a chance to get a lot of real work done – there were few meetings and calls, meaning that I got to research several bills and develop recommendations for the Congressman. This afternoon, I’ve had a chance to write my journal and tidy up before the business of a week in session with numerous votes hits next week. My takeaway is that although Congress might not be in session, the staff is all here working diligently. Slow weeks give them all a chance to focus on writing good legislation and fully analyzing the potential outcomes without having to deal with everyone constantly trying to reach them for something.

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Week 3, June 22, 2012

My second week in Congressman Andrews’ office was considerably busier than the first – for several reasons. Foremost, the House was in session this week, meaning that votes were taking place, and that the Congressman was in the DC office taking meetings, and secondly, Eric Holder was under fire from the House Oversight Committee. To top things off, two of the office’s experienced interns were out of the office this week. Needless to say, the training wheels have come off and I had become an essential member of the office.

As the office had less staff this week and more responsibilities, I had little time to attend briefings and committee hearings. Instead, I spent more time answering constituent calls regarding the Holder events, doing research and making recommendations on bills up for votes, and various other research projects for the staff monitoring news or trying get ahold of certain people.

This week I also had my official Congressional Research Service orientation – qualifying me to place requests for research – and Capitol Tour Training. The CRS orientation may have been useful on the first day, but after being in the office for a week and a half, I’d picked up just about everything they had to say from the more experienced interns or the staff. I suggested that they implement an online training series so that they wouldn’t experience a backlog of interns needing the training in order to help make the process more efficient. Only time will tell if my suggestion is implemented in the future. 

Pictures from the Art Competition  
Two selections from the Congressional Art Competition: (left) a protein used to measure gene expression levels, and (right) a piece featuring Tupac.  

Capitol Tour training was much more enjoyable – despite having been on several tours already and even giving a tour to the high school student and her family whose art had been selected by Congressman Andrews to be a part of the Congressional Art Competition and hang in the tunnel between Cannon House Office Building and the Capitol. (It certainly helps to pick things up quickly and without any formal training in a Congressional Office.) I expected tour training to be quite monotonous, having heard much of the information before and even explained it to a tour group. Pictured here are two of my favorite selections, both from Florida. The protein I use in the lab to measure gene expression levels, green fluorescent protein, originated from jellyfish. It's interesting that it's hanging next to a piece featuring one of my favorite rappers.

However, I soon found that the instructors were genuinely passionate about their duties and had a wealth of information I was able to focus on because I’d already mastered the basics. Even the presentation on disability accommodations and accessibility was enjoyable – the instructor knew how to make his points stick with hilarious examples and hypotheticals. One such story involved giving a tour to your Congressman’s grandmother – knowing how old many of the members are, she would have to be quite elderly – and how doing it right may well lead to a paying job someday. Also entertaining were the other interns I met at the training, including several who were interning for Congressman Lacy Clay who represents the constituency immediately north of the neighborhood in Saint Louis where I grew up, and a very progressive Irish student interning for Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx in New York City.

Friday, the House was out of session, resulting in a slower day. Nonetheless, it was the highlight of my week, as it allowed me to attend one of the intern lectures, given by the Chief Administrative Officer of the House, Dan Strodel. After he introduced himself as “the person with perhaps the most mundane title” for the week’s lecture series, I had the opportunity to ask perhaps two of the most mundane questions - which involved dishes, garbage, and recycling. Despite the seemingly mundane topic, in a complex as big as the Capitol, even the process of taking out the trash (which was certainly the bane of apartment life for me this past school year apart from washing dishes) must result in significant costs. 

Both questions seemed to even make him consider the merits of my proposals. One regarded contracting for the vendors in the cafeterias, which had recently switched to single use Styrofoam containers, allowing the Capitol to take in a higher percentage of the gross sales from the vendor. I inquired if externalizing the garbage disposal costs back to the Capitol resulted in a net gain or loss from the terms of the contract. Although he was unable to answer in detail, it seemed to make him consider something that perhaps no one had thought of before. 

The other inquired if it might be possible to put market incentives on the amount of recycling each member office generates. Since each member offices is given an allotment of funds to use at their discretion, charging them for the actual costs of their recycling may provide them with an incentive to reduce their waste – that I see first hand every morning recycling numerous extra copies of the various publications sent to each member office. Even if as an intern, I am unpaid, there is a full time custodial technician that then must transport the pounds and pounds of recycling out of the building, resulting in unnecessary labor costs if the offices simply took the time to stop the extra copies of the numerous publications they receive – or better yet, switch entirely to digital distribution.

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Week 4, June 29, 2012

With the federal student loan interest rates set to double if measures were not passed to extend the reductions by the end of the week, federal highway funding to run out and hold up in progress construction progress, the Eric Holder Fast and Furious debate reaching a boiling point, and a critical Supreme Court decision due out this week, there was certainly a lot going on at the nation’s Capitol. Needless to say, this meant that interns all over the Hill faced considerable amounts of constituent phone calls, email, and letters regarding all the proceedings. The staff seemed somewhat frazzled too due to the high stress of the week.

As events unfolded, it seemed as if everything was building up to Thursday and Friday. The Supreme Court announced that it would release its decision regarding the Affordable Care Act on Thursday. A vote to hold Eric Holder in contempt of Congress was scheduled for Thursday as well. On Monday, there seemed to be no progress on the transportation bills or any extension of the student loan rate reduction. However, on Tuesday, the Senate passed a Transportation & Student Loan deal that would prevent highway funding from running out and extend the student loan rate reductions. Votes were scheduled in the House for Friday.

Thursday morning hit with a mix of anticipation, tension, and stress. It was a day that history would be made, but instead of getting to observe and process at home, I got to experience making it happen. Congressman Andrews was scheduled to appear on numerous media outlets throughout the course of the day, on top of regular business. As the decision came out, the entire office was glued to Twitter, which broke the story – correctly I might add - before network TV. When the network stations finally caught up, CNN and Fox were both reporting that the individual mandate had been struck down. MSNBC was reporting that it had been upheld. @SCOTUSBlog seemed to have the most in depth coverage, implying that they actually read and were transcribing the decision live. Soon CNN realized their mistake and corrected them selves. Fox switched to live coverage of Rupert Murdoch explaining the split between entities of his company that had been plagued by illegal wiretapping scandals, as if it was the case that if they didn’t broadcast it, somehow the decision to uphold the law wouldn’t actually be happening.

For about half an hour, we couldn’t even download the decision from the Supreme Court due to how swamped the servers must have been as the entire country tried to download their decision. Once one of the staff managed to get a copy downloaded, it was sent around the office to have everyone read. Several of the staff had been actively involved in writing and passing the law in 2010. One of the interns relies on provisions in the bill to maintain his health insurance. For everyone, it was more than just reading about some case like Marbury v. Madison. It was personal. 

While I will refrain from posting my personal comments regarding the decision, I will say that Chief Justice John Roberts certainly defined how (at least the early years of) his court will be remembered on Thursday. The court handed down a decision to uphold the healthcare law, but also significantly narrowing the powers of the commerce clause at the same time. It was an outcome that satisfied the immediate desires of the left, but also contained something conservatives had been hoping to see for years. In doing so, he enraged the conservative pundits, who spend most of the day Thursday calling him a traitor and the like. Liberals seemed to quietly applaud his decision, willing to take a narrow read of the commerce clause in exchange for a public necessity – expanded access to healthcare. I think that it will be some time before the full impact of this decision is fully understood by the academics, the pundits, and the public – but also even the very policymakers themselves. I would also assert that the initial reactions by both partisan sides might belie the way this decision will shape federal policy in the years to come.

Because the Holder contempt vote was more a demonstration of political theatre than substantive policymaking, I will remain brief: Democrats organized a walkout to protest the vote itself, saying it should be reserved for true constitutional crisis. Thus, Eric Holder was held in contempt of congress. The Department of Justice is refusing to prosecute, leaving the matter dead-in-the-water. Soon batched mailings explaining each member’s position will be sent in response to the volumes of angry letters either demanding that either Holder be held in contempt and prosecuted, or that the GOP should focus instead on doing something to help the economy. I must say, somehow, in the face of extremely polarized views, the government was able to reach a compromise that split the difference.

All this time, the House could have been working on the Transportation and Student Loan bills, which were pushed off to a Friday afternoon vote, in a college-student worthy display of procrastination. In order to prevent Obama’s campaign from being able to blast the House GOP for refusing to pass even basic, common sense legislation, the House passed the combined Transportation-Student Loan-Flood Insurance deal that had originated in the Senate. After such a long week, and recess coming over the week of Fourth of July, the Capitol seemed to empty instantly following the final vote. 

I was able to leave a little early to join up with the rest of the SPS Interns at ACP for dinner before going to a production of the Music Man. Because my parents are originally from Iowa, the musical is quite familiar to me – but not to the point of disinterest. The Arena Stage in Washington has seats all around, instead of the traditional style, making for an interesting production. I look forward to a week of recess on the Hill – Hopefully I will have some time to speak with the staff to discuss their backgrounds, career plans, and insights they might be able to share.

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Week 5, July 6, 2012

This week, the House was in recess for the Fourth of July. The holiday fell on a Wednesday, meaning the workweek was split in two. The early part of the week was spent preparing press releases after the exciting week that occurred previously, including passing a transportation bill and student loan interest rate extension, as well as the healthcare ruling.

Diffraction glasses  
A view of a floodlight through diffraction glasses.  

It is surprisingly challenging to write a press release. Things are boiled down into language that any reader can understand, assuming no background in the subject. This makes it a frustrating process – many details are left out and any admissions of compromise or shortcomings are scrubbed. Normally, the district office is responsible for writing press releases geared towards constituents, but because of the slow week in Washington, the legislative office took on some of their duties.

The Fourth of July in Washington is quite an experience. I went with the other SPS interns to watch the Capitol Fourth concert and fireworks. We staked out a spot on Capitol Hill directly below the House chamber on the west side of the Capitol at 3pm and took shifts to occupy the spot. After compiling a list of things we’d forgotten, I went back to GWU to acquire additional supplies – including diffraction glasses that proved quite entertaining, not only to ourselves, but those sitting around us. Each one had SPS logos on them, so I count it as good PR too.

The second part of the week in the office was more geared towards preparing for the week ahead. I took care of quite a bit of correspondence: drafting and revising numerous times in order to create the final letters. Although somewhat mundane, its an important task to maintain the necessary correspondence to inform constituents of the positions the Congressman takes and explain the reasoning behind it, even if it does not align with that a particular constituent’s precise views. Congressmen must aggregate the views of their constituents and adopt a position that best represents the overall will of their constituents.

With the House GOP set to vote to repeal Obamacare, - another act of political theatre: the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, will not pass such a repeal – the prospects for next week look to include many phone calls from constituents on both sides seeking to inform the Congressman of their views. 

As an intern, I will be tasked with speaking to them and logging their comments into the database. On one hand, its certainly exciting to be actually talking to constituents and engaging in conversation with them, but on the other hand, there’s many constituents that call in and are extremely hostile. Many of the hostilities I can certainly understand, and some I even empathize with. However, it’s not in any way fun to be on the receiving end of their frustration. I do my best to ensure that they know I understand their views by repeating back to them in my own words my understanding of their position to be before I log it. Simply assuring them that someone is listening, in many cases, does the trick and calms them down or even makes their day. It is certainly a rewarding part of the task when I know that I’ve helped someone take part in democracy.

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Week 6, July 13, 2012

The week after the Fourth of July, Congress resumed legislative business. After a week to catch up, the political drama resumed with renewed fervor. The GOP leadership scheduled a vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, despite no chance of the repeal also passing in the Democratically controlled Senate and even less chance of overcoming a Presidential veto. Instead of focusing on important measures that need to come to the floor like the Agriculture bill or income tax rate extensions. The GOP argues that the vote puts every member on the record for the public to consider in November. However, the repeal vote has occurred before - it's quite simple to extrapolate current positions.

Congressman Andrews serves on the Heath, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, allowing him to take on a leadership role in the process. Similar to the aftermath of the release of the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling prior to the Fourth of July, Congressman Andrews appeared on multiple new programs, resulting in a significant volume of constituent calls to the office to voice their opinions on the vote. The office received calls from all over the country. Constituents of the district the Congressman represents take priority and their comments are recorded. The public generally has very polarized views and seemed to have vast amounts of misinformation about provisions of the bill. This is understandable - the bill lies at the intersection of two very complex fields. Not only must one understand medicine to fully understand both the language of the provisions and the ramifications, but also finance. An understanding of constitutional law and the federal regulatory process certainly helps too.

In addition to constituent correspondence regarding the healthcare votes, there are numerous other items of concern. Postal reform has drawn serious attention: postal workers even demonstrated to raise awareness both to the problems they face under current law and potential problems of the proposed legislation that has been working through the committee process in preparation for consideration on the floor.

Finally, although the Dodd-Frank financial industry reform passed both chambers and was signed into law quite some time ago, much of the law delegated specifics of the reform to knowledgeable federal regulators. The federal regulatory process is a complex system designed to weigh interests of different groups and is surprisingly similar to the legislative process, despite total omission from introductory civics and government classes. This process is just now reaching critical stages where final decisions must be made after periods of public comment. Congress still oversees this process, albeit in an indirect fashion. They have power to raise public awareness of certain details and therefore influence the process to ensure that the process truly reflects the spirit of the law passed issuing regulatory guidelines.

Therefore, the Congressman must be very well informed of even minute details of the regulations in order to effectively protect the interests of the constituents. I spent much of the week - in between phone calls - conducting thorough research of the regulatory details and the thoughts of industry, citizens, and the government to ensure that well balanced and robust regulation is formed. Well crafted regulation is essential: on one side, citizens risk losing access to credit, but on the other, the regulations will fail to prevent the same behavior that allowed the financial crisis to develop in the first place. A third factor to consider is the litigation process - vague regulation will lead to expensive and lengthy litigation, taxing an already burdened court system. Although omitted from introductory government courses, this process is critical to the effectiveness of any law. Granted, it has its own difficulties, but thankfully, the regulatory formation process is less about appealing rhetoric and more about analytical analysis of the consequences of federal action to ensure the intended outcome results from a law.

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Week 7, July 20, 2012

It hit me this week that my time in Washington for the summer is drawing to a close. After the close of this week, I have just two more remaining in Congressman Andrews’ office and a final presentation. Afterwards, I will begin the process of transitioning back to my senior year at the University of Minnesota. Knowing this has put my nose to the grindstone in my efforts to make the most out of my remaining time.

I spent much of the week working on a variety of legislative research projects, including continuing work on Dodd-Frank regulation, small business contracting in the naval supply chain, and green energy use for the Department of Defense, in addition to the usual intern duties of processing flag and tour requests. As the summer draws to a close, the other interns are beginning to leave, increasing the workload for me in handling these duties. Two of the other interns have now left for the summer. Because of this, I have found that I am working later – but purely out of choice. Ensuring that the staff members are prepared with full and complete knowledge of the issues and legislation they work on is worth spending an extra few minutes in the office at the end of the day so as not to sacrifice quality of work.

After analyzing the pros and cons of the different arguments of the Dodd-Frank qualified mortgage regulation debate and formulating a position recommendation last week, I attended a briefing on Tuesday organized by groups advocating for a ‘rebuttable presumption’ framework for qualified mortgages and engaged in dialogue to better understand their opposition to a ‘safe harbor.’ It is my opinion that both sides of the debate have serious flaws; I hope the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau considers and reconciles the problems presented by both sides. Without elucidating the weaknesses of both positions, I believe that one side of the debate will ‘win’ and in the end fail to adequately protect both consumers and lenders.

I began researching how the Military Sealift Command awards contracts to private businesses in order to supply the navy. They award contracts to small businesses to meet the supply chain needs of the navy. These protocols are not established by statute, meaning that one cannot simply look in the United States Code or the Federal Code of Regulation to determine what they are. There are numerous guidelines and programs that all govern the guidelines for the program, making the analysis a complex task. The MSC determines goals used to evaluate their success in complying with these guidelines. These goals, and how well they accomplish ensuring that the MSC complies with the intent of the program, are useful for debate on funding for the MSC and, in the more abstract, how to make the military as a whole operate just as successfully on a smaller budget – an imperative of the current policy debate both in Washington and across the nation.

I also conducted some of the most directly science-related research I’ve been tasked with so far concerning green energy use by the Department of Defense. In addition to reading papers and developing summaries of key points for the staff, I also determined who the most qualified experts in the field were in order to consult with and advocate for or defend such programs. This required not only technical knowledge of science, but also knowledge of the academic research process in identifying who had written extensively on the subject and which papers were respected in the field. I examined citations and co-author listings, indicating faculty that contributed or advised a particular graduate student’s work. Based on this information, I recommended several faculty members whom the staff or Congressman Andrews could consult with or seek references from in the debate over implementation of sustainability measures within the Department of Defense.

The week flew by, with a constant sense that there was more work to be done than hours in the day – necessitating rising to the challenge. It’s a feeling I live for and am able to take pride in overcoming. Having just finished a project Thursday afternoon, I left a few minutes early to attend a BBQ at ACP and catch up with Jennifer, Bo, and Dr. Mather. Friday there was time for a photo opportunity with Congressman Andrews and the other interns, but the day carried a somber tone due to the tragedy that occurred the previous night in Colorado, necessitating responses from political leaders. The public debate over gun control will certainly be impacted by the events, but it is unlikely that such attempts will be able to impact real change in preventing the mass shootings that seem to have become commonplace. The real challenge is to think outside the box to find a solution that both fits within the constraints on the role of government and is able to effectively prevent these tragedies. Without making light of the immense undertaking this will require, it is important to note that the same need for palatable solutions is present across the spectrum of the issues our nation faces today.

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Week 8, July 27, 2012

It was yet another busy week. Congress was in session, and considered several contentious bills. First, the House considered H.R. 459, The Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2012, introduced by Congressman Ron Paul. It would remove the restrictions on the GAO’s ability to audit the actions of the Federal Reserve. Currently the law excludes transactions with foreign central banks, decisions on monetary policy, transactions made by the Federal Open Market Committee, and communication between officers of the Federal Reserve Board on matters regarding the decision making process for the aforementioned duties. The decision on how to vote isn’t a very simple “impending doom if this measure fails, ergo vote yes” proposition. Also weighing into the decision, considerable numbers of constituents from around the nation had been calling their representatives requesting them to vote in favor of the measure, effectively mobilized by the Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty.

On one hand, the Federal Reserve must have a level of independence in order to prevent dramatic swings characteristic of democratic processes. Stability in monetary policy is vital to accomplish the Federal Reserve’s dual statutory mandate of maximizing employment and ensuring price stability. The statutory exclusions from audits of the Federal Reserve are designed to protect the Federal Reserve’s independence in these decisions. However, they also prevent Congressional oversight of the process, placing considerable power in appointed officials. The necessity for stability and the founding principles of a government of and by the people are at odds in this matter – requiring careful balance between the two essentials.

The bill was contentious because it stripped away all the protections of the Federal Reserve from Congressional Oversight. The bill as written requires placing value on either accountability to the people (Yea), or valuing independence for long term stability (Nay). Many Republicans voted Yea, as did many Democrats in tight races in the upcoming November elections. Safer Democrats tended to vote Nay, in the interest of economic stability. I would assert that the committee failed to reach an adequate compromise that subjected the Federal Reserve to accountability in these matters, but limited Congressional power to politicize the process. While making the factors weighing into the decision public does ensure accountability, turning them into campaign issues subject to wild swings of the electorate has negative consequences for the economy and makes it more difficult for the Federal Reserve to comply with its statutory mandate. Despite passing the House, the bill will likely never even be scheduled for a vote in the Senate and has little chance of becoming law. In order to ensure the accountability of the Federal Reserve to Congress, a compromise would be necessary that allows for accountability and input but still safeguards the Federal Reserve from being politicized. In the interest of such a compromise, perhaps the law should allow for investigation into the matter, but prohibit binding actions on the matter in order to ensure both a degree of accountability and a degree of independence.

I did a considerable amount of legislative research to assist the staff in preparing to brief the Congressman on exactly what the bill would do and both potential negative consequences and potential merits in order to give a full and accurate account of both sides of the debate.

Another controversy of the week was the debate over H.R. 4078, The Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act, which was found to contain a typo that omitted the ‘un’ from ‘unemployment.’ The purported purpose of the bill was to prohibit any government regulations from being issued until unemployment was below 6%. I will not discuss the merits or faults of such a law here, but simply state that the consequences leaving out the ‘un’ would prohibit regulations unless employment itself dropped below 6%. Here, I think the faults are self-evident. In order to correct the typo, GOP leadership proposed a rule for vote that would fix the typographical error. This proposed rule was also found to contain a typo that would have significantly impacted the effect of such a rule. In turn, debate on the floor focused on a typo in a rule to fix a typo in a bill that would never pass the Senate or be signed by the President, and lacked any chance of obtaining enough votes to override a veto. Such use of valuable floor time begs the question “What is the point?”

In other news, I received word that my request for the SPS interns to tour the White House was approved – a rare occurrence. I am looking forward to the tour next week!

Whiskey Hotel

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Week 9, August 3, 2012

This week was my final week with Congressman Andrews’ Legislative Office. First, let me express how fast the eight weeks went by. I’m amazed that I’m already at the close of my internship. Second, I’m happy with how much I was able to contribute: by the last week, I was given tasks to complete independently preparing briefings for staff members on tax policy and training new interns.

The other SPS interns came to the Capitol for a tour, so I got to show them around the Capitol. They were impressed by the architecture, art, and historical significance of the building that I see every day. When constantly surrounded by such breathtaking sights, it is hard not to take it for granted. Getting a chance to show everything off gave me a final chance to take everything in and appreciate the importance of self-government.

We entered the senate gallery and were able to watch Senator Bernie Sanders debating climate change – and even was referencing scientific research. In a final display what I’ve dubbed Washington-Odds, 9 physics majors just happened to walk in when a debate referencing physics, science and energy was taking place, leaving us all wondering: “What are the odds?” Such unexpected phenomena seem to occur all the time here in the nation’s capitol city.

This week I worked on comparing language between bills to determine differences for one of the legislative assistants and make recommendations for reconciliation between the two bills to unify the efforts to pass a measure to protect the jobs of volunteer firemen and emergency medical personnel when they leave their jobs to assist in providing emergency services for their communities.

The Interns at the White House  
The SPS Interns and a friend on a tour of the White House.  

I also got a chance to tour the White House with the SPS interns. The tour included the State Dining Room, the East Room, the Red, Blue and Green Rooms, the Library, the Vermeil Room, the Map Room, and the China Room. I particularly enjoyed the Green Room, where a portrait of Benjamin Franklin hung over the fireplace. Sadly, the tour did not include seeing any of the West Wing, the nerve center were the White House conducts executive business.

My final project for the office involved preparing a memo on dividends tax policy and the merits and drawbacks of both the GOP and the Democratic plan. Because it was for the office’s general counsel, I was permitted to write it on a somewhat more sophisticated and technical level than the usual ‘get it across in as few of words as possible’ manner. It involved citing economic research and analyzing the political consequences of the issue. Although the Congressman had already expressed opposition to the GOP plan, I was given the task of preparing the evidence to defend the position analytically.

Next week, I will give my final presentation to AIP and SPS and prepare to head back to Minneapolis, where I will begin on the Graves for Congress Campaign and attend teaching assistant orientation for my teaching assistantship position this fall. As much as I’ve enjoyed Washington, I’m also excited to return to Minnesota. I know I’ll be back to Washington soon.

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Final Reflections

The Mather Internship’s stated goal is to promote awareness of and interaction with the policy process for undergraduate physics students.  However, over the course of the summer, it was so much more.  I had already “caught the bug” of public service and policy advocacy, having worked on a campaign for the Minnesota House of Representatives.  However, no amount of textbook learning can compare to the opportunity to take part in the governing process – even at the most minute of levels.  First hand experience into the process is difficult to relay in any words – only through the experience itself can one really gain all the insight it provides. 

Although my background is in physics, Members of Congress are tasked with an enormous breadth of issues to address, in order to advocate effectively for their constituents.  In order to somewhat distill these broad needs down into something that individual members can take responsibility and ownership for, the committee structure places individual members on several committees, accounting for most of the work they do.  Congressman Andrews serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Education and the Workforce Committee.  Some of the most science-related topics I had the opportunity to work on revolved around implementing the use of sustainable energy for the Department of Defense.   Although hot-button topics and political theatre preparing for the November elections dominated most of the media and focus in Congress over the summer, important work still takes place – much of it contained in appropriations and authorization bills that fund federal agencies and programs. 
After completing the Mather Internship, I interned for Jim Graves for Congress upon returning to the University of Minnesota.  Having been in a congressional office, it was interesting to compare the congressional office to a congressional campaign.  The operations and the short-term goals are very much different, but the end goal is the same – to advocate for constituents.  Nevertheless, while attending classes, participating in the campaign was a valuable experience – apart from learning more about the workings of Minnesota’s state party and the reality of congressional campaign operations, I knew that I was helping impact the political landscape. 

The Graves campaign coordinated with multiple local candidates and with statewide constitutional amendment campaigns.  One proposed constitutional amendment would have required a photo ID with the current address listed on it in order to cast a ballot in Minnesota, making it much more difficult and expensive for students (who move frequently between dorms apartments while in school) to cast ballots.  Either students would have to find a way to get themselves to the Department of Motor Vehicles and pay to update their license every year, despite many without automobile transportation, or request absentee ballots and vote in their parents precincts.  The multi-step process would have effectively disenfranchised many students due to the cumbersome process.  In the areas I organized for the Graves campaign, I could tell that the conversations I had explaining the amendment had an impact in defeating the proposal and ensuring equitable access to casting a ballot for students.

The Mather Internship decidedly influenced plans upon completing my undergraduate degree.  After the experience, I am also considering a Ph.D. in science, technology, and environmental policy instead of a Ph.D. in physics.  While implementing sound policy may be difficult with divided government, it is not entirely impossible.  Sound policy must be relayed and advocated to policymakers not only based on the research, but in context of the political reality.  From the Mather internship, I certainly understand the day-to-day reality of this process on a level that no textbook or class could achieve, and hope to someday put it to use.

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Name Jonathan Morris
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Mather Policy Intern: Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) Legislative Office
Jonathan's Twitter Feed: @JMorrisAIP
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Final Presentation

Navigating the Legislative Process: Insights from the Mather Policy Internship

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