Week 1: Physics, Politics, and Puns- Oh my!

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Sunday, June 12, 2016


Tabitha Colter

An introduction:

When we were given instructions about keeping this blog post, we were told to post as if it was for our future selves to look back upon this summer. I love that idea, but also think it'd be slightly unfair to jump straight in to my summer without giving you at least some background on who I am and how I ended up here. But first- a game of two truths and a lie! If you've never played this particular icebreaker before what's going to happen is I'm going to write three statements below, two of which are true and one of which is false. I'll post the answers and some explanations at the very bottom of this blog and you can check it after you make a guess.

  • When I was 7, my life ambition was to be a lion tamer and I used to practice by making my two cats jump through hula hoops
  • I have my motorcycle license but no motorcycle
  • In high school, I wrote a paper on censorship for which I actually went back and blacked out a lot of my words before turning it in

Now that you know some random trivia about me, let's move on to what brought me to DC for the summer. My background is Furman University in Greenville, SC- a beautiful university of about 2600 students where I spend my time running around our beautiful lake, running to various meetings, and sitting in a classroom for hours on end trying to understand physics or crank out a paper. I'm a physics and philosophy double major so you could say I major in asking questions, kind of receiving answers to those questions, then ending up with even more questions than I started with. I interned at Oak Ridge National Lab last summer where I did some fancy physics research involving optics and lasers and a lot of even more complicated things my parents (and I sometimes) pretended to understand. The internship was a great experience full of wonderful conversations, engaging mentors, and new friends. But I realized then that I wanted to branch out of the typical MO for physics majors. I've always had an interest in government, with political and cultural philosophy remaining one of my favorite topics in the major. So when I was google searching (yes really) undergrad physics internships outside of research and eventually stumbled upon this AIP Mather internship I knew I was the perfect fit. The Mather internship is sponsored by Dr. John Mather, a Nobel winning astrophysicist who spent his prize on establishing opportunities like mine for young physics students to get involved in the world of science in meaningful ways.

After I was selected as one of the two Mather interns, I began an interview process to determine what exactly I would be doing on the Hill. The idea is to take undergrads who are being taught to think like scientists and expose them to the world of policy and see the need in that realm for people with science backgrounds. I ended up being selected as an intern for the Energy and Commerce Committee within the House of Representatives. The E&C Committee (for short) has the largest jurisdiction of any House committee and oversees legislation involving the Department of Transportation, Dept of Energy, Dept of Health & Human Services, Dept of Commerce, the FDA, FCC and the EPA. I was especially excited about the wide range of areas covered since my goal for this summer is just to learn as much as possible about everything I can.

AIP Mather Policy Interns Dimitri Call and Tabitha Colter are pictured with program sponsor Dr. John Mather (center).

On Monday, Demitri (the other Mather intern) and I actually got the chance to meet the man who so generously sponsors our internship. All of the SPS interns rode out to the American Institute of Physics Headquarters where we attended orientation, ate lunch with Dr. Mather, and took group photos. In the afternoon, Demitri and I headed down to the Capitol where we got to check out the places we would be working.

Tuesday morning I met with Ryan, the intern coordinator for the Minority Side of the E&C committee. He told me that the health subcommittee had recently lost a Fellow and could use the extra help if I was willing. The best part of the assignment (besides the chance to learn the gritty details of health policy that most people outside of Washington don't bother to learn) was I got upgraded buildings to Rayburn which is where the Committee's main hearing room is and most of its representatives stay. This week was a particularly busy one for our subcommittee, as we had a huge hearing regarding some bill proposals on the Affordable Care Act. For those of you who haven't studied government since mandatory education, we'll do a little refresher on how politics work up here in the Capitol/some useful vocab.

Any representative can sponsor a bill and each of these are referred to the specific committee said to have jurisdiction to consider the bill’s qualities.

A hearing is when a committee brings witnesses (two for the majority party, one for the minority) and allows the congressmen on the Committee 5 minutes each to question the experts on their opinion regarding a drafted bill.

A markup occurs before a hearing and represents a chance for the committee members to suggest any amendments, changes, or strikes to a bill that has been drafted.

If a bill passes the committee, it goes to the House floor to be voted on by the entire House. The House is designed to really be the people’s legislation as the 435 representatives are fiercely loyal to their districts and reflect the interests of that region rather than having to be concerned with the entire state as senators are.

If the bill gets passed on the House floor by a simple majority, then the bill as drafted gets sent to the Senate. The Senate then can also amend, debate and vote on the bill to try to achieve a simple majority again to pass it. Finally, a special committee comes together to bring the final House version and the final Senate version together and that draft gets sent back to each for final approval. From there, the bill ends up on the president’s desk for him to either sign into effect or veto.

A “simple majority” may sound simple but the process is anything but. Almost 7,000 bills are introduced each session but an average of only 750 get passed. Those numbers sound a little like Ivy League acceptance rates to anybody else? Not to bore you with numbers, but the especially crazy part about those statistics is that almost 90% of those bills fail at the committee level. That makes the research, writing, staff work, and representative’s interests extremely important in what bills get passed (and equally interesting, which bills don’t).

Even if you’re not a numbers person, you can quickly see why being the party with majority makes a huge difference, since the majority is the direct controller of what bills come up for hearings in the first place and gets to choose the focus of each session.

All that to say, my first week was an extremely busy one. My committee had a major hearing regarding ACA standards on Friday, with markups Wednesday for it and other meetings on other bills that will be coming soon. The ability of every person in my office to juggle such specific and technical knowledge about every potential bill is one of the most amazing parts of my job. I’ve only been there five days but I already feel neck deep in the dirty process of compromise to try to get legislation to pass.

The incredible complexity of our political system is something I’d always read about in textbooks but couldn’t truly appreciate until I got to experience it firsthand. Much like reading about biological systems and staring at accurate pictures isn’t quite the same as actually getting in there to do a dissection, textbook descriptions on Congress aren’t nearly the same as real life. I’ll leave my blog for today with a paraphrasing of one of my coworkers who also shares a science background as well. She said that the way her brain sees it is science is the study of systems, understanding how things group together or separate and why results are consistent or inconsistent. She said that to her, politics is fascinating for the exact same reasons and has just as many questions to be explored as science does and that’s what keeps her interested.

I know this first blog was a little long, but I really wanted to give some background so in the future I can go a little more in depth. Thanks for sticking with it and be prepared in the following weeks for some science/physics puns as intros!


  • When I was 7, my life ambition was to be a lion tamer and I used to practice by making my two cats jump through hula hoops
    FALSE. When I was 7 my life ambition was to be a part-time librarian, part-time mountain climber. Dream big kids.
  • I have my motorcycle license but no motorcycle
    TRUE. You can check my license. But alas, no motorcycle (yet). 
  • In high school, I wrote a paper on censorship for which I actually went back and blacked out a lot of my words before turning it in
    TRUE. A year after writing the paper, an English teacher I had never had before told me that even she had heard about it.

Tabitha Colter