Last Thursday I found myself in our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC. I spent the day running around town with a lobbyist and consultant who formerly served as an advisor to Vice President Gore, and was also the Staff Director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where he advised nineteen Senators on environmental and energy issues. In a nutshell this guy was dialed in, and was kind enough to set up a day’s worth of meetings for me with senior staffers and advisors to folks like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Representative Henry Waxman, as well as with White House environmental and procurement officials and policymakers. It was a fascinating day and highlighted both what is right and wrong with Washington.
The day started with a big old DC snowstorm, and I loved it. I grew up in DC, and snowstorms top the list of things I miss about my hometown. It was awesome – I felt like a kid again, especially when the cab driver taking us up to Capitol Hill paused on a radio station rattling off the list of school closings. I instinctively found myself listening and hoping my elementary school would make the list.
As we walked from the cab stand to the Capitol Building we were pelted with huge fluffy flakes and could barely see through the swirling storm. Moving through security and entering into the halls of the Capitol building I felt like Alice walking through the looking glass. In a few steps we’d shifted from the raw, natural world of cold wind, fluffy snowflakes, and blowing trees into the uniquely human world of the Capitol building with its ornate marble floors, carved marble busts and huge hanging brass lamps. And moving through this uniquely human world were none other than our fearless leaders — Senators and Congressmen walking confidently down the halls, their minions following diligently with arms overflowing with clipboards, notebooks and Blackberrys. It was quite a scene.
We spent the rest of the day meeting with a variety of officials and policymakers on the Hill and in the White House all involved in various ways with environmental and energy policy. We discussed issues ranging from carbon legislation to Federal procurement policy to green/clean-tech investing to (of course) Presidential politics. It was quite a day.
So without further ado, here are the two key take-always neatly organized into two categories: the good and the bad.
First the good: people are engaged in the environmental discussion, understand that action must be taken, and are preparing for a significant coming sea change with the new administration. Legislation on carbon is in the works and it is a matter of when rather than if. Congressional staffers and White House officials are “talking the talk” and the consistent message I heard was that regardless of who wins the White House it is expected far and wide that GHG legislation will be high on the legislative agenda. Everyone I met with seemed to agree that Bush has done very little to advance the green cause (and that’s being nice). But that is all expected to change quite quickly when the new administration takes over, and as a result agencies and departments are getting ready now. DC is in what I call “gathering storm” mode – and you can really feel it in the air. If nothing else this proves that that the people still have significant power in this country because the leadership is surely not setting the agenda on this issue – it is the people. We’re seeing a true call for change on environmental issues from US citizens – and based on my “Day in DC” our leaders finally get it.
Now the bad news: while the leaders may “get it” on an individual level the institutions themselves seem incapable of doing anything in an expedited fashion. Speed does not appear anywhere in the lexicon of Capitol Hill. I was amazed at the glacial pace (no pun intended) of change anticipated or forecasted from each and every person I met with. Of course we all know that government moves slowly, and in many cases that is a good thing. For some issues a slow, methodical approach to legislation is entirely appropriate. However, given the crisis nature of the current situation we face – melting ice caps, species on the brink of extinction, brutally over-fished seas, rampant global industrialization, etc – now is not the time for multi-year legislative cycles. Now is the time for clear, committed, and rapid action. And I am saddened to say that I question whether our government has the ability to pass any meaningful legislation in the next few years. The system is just broken. For example, you can already see the entrenched interests digging in to be sure any legislation does not take money from their pockets. On top of the aforementioned “slow factor” the additional roadblocks that will be erected by the energy companies, the car companies, the oil companies, etc. cannot be underestimated for it will greatly impact the process and eventual legislation. This “business as usual” approach will not, repeat not, fix the very serious problems we face – and that is bad news indeed.
So there you have it — good news, bad news. Let’s hope that the next President has the leadership skills to take the good news, empower people, define the agenda, and communicate a vision that we can all rally around – because the stakes are about as high as they get.