Government Fellowships

Congressional Staff and the Daily Workings of Democracy

By Clarissa Bhargava, Ph.D.

After a year embedded in the U.S. Senate, I am coming away inspired by the people that carry out our ambitious democracy. Congress is a wonderful, weird and sometimes frustrating place steeped in history, procedure and power. And almost no one knows how it works.

I had few expectations for my IEEE-USA Congressional Fellowship — a program that funds Ph.D. scientists to serve as Congressional staff — and in hindsight, how could I have? Like most Americans, my familiarity with the federal legislature was based on the news, and I wasn’t sure what a materials scientist would do while working for a Member of Congress. After all, the behind-the-scenes, sausage-making roles of Congressional staff are, somewhat purposefully, not the subject of public knowledge.

Members of Congress are not islands; they are supported by a diverse collection of talented and passionate staff. The average Senator, for example, has nearly 70 staffers between their home state and D.C., varying widely based on leadership role and state population. There are dedicated teams to carry out constituent services, interface with communities on the ground, answer emails and phone calls, manage official communications, maneuver the Senator’s schedule, run the office’s operations, and of course, develop legislation that will affect us all.

A Congressional office is often a close-knit group of people, working together for one purpose: to help the boss — the Senator or Representative — serve their state or district. I observed stunningly little electoral politics in our policy development process. Legislative staffers do not coordinate with the Member’s campaign arm (indeed, that is illegal), we don’t care who the campaign donors are, and we don’t think about the partisan identity of a constituent before advocating for their best interests. For me personally, experiencing this firsthand reassured my faith in our democracy.

As an IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow, I served on the legislative team of Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), working on his energy, environment and innovation policy portfolio. Jumping straight into a legislative role is a bit like being thrown into a restaurant kitchen during the dinner rush — there are things already in the oven, ingredients on the prep surface, and new tickets pouring through the door. And you have a responsibility to feed your dinner guests, some of whom are demanding and vocal, while others are quietly wondering if anyone will serve them. In literal terms, some bills are already vetted and awaiting a vote, some are drafted but not yet introduced, and some are still in the early development stages: ideation, stakeholder engagement, technical review, and socialization. It is the job of the legislative team to advance each bill along in this process until it passes into law — something achieved by only 2-3% of bills — all while navigating chaotic current events and the ascertainment bias inherent to policy advocacy.

Some of the bills in my portfolio were already in later stages, like the Leveraging our National Laboratories to Develop Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders Act, which Senator Luján had developed, introduced and passed in the House of Representatives (where he served until being elected to the Senate in 2020). I was responsible for updating the bill’s text, working with our Republican cosponsor, and re-introducing the bill in the Senate, where we rallied enough support for it to ultimately pass both chambers and into law as part of the massive CHIPS and Science Act.

Other legislation was built from collaborations between the two chambers, like the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act, primarily developed by the staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (HSST) and championed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. In light of New Mexico’s high risk of catastrophic wildfire amid historic drought conditions, I partnered with the staff of HSST, Rep. Lofgren and Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) to develop a related bill for introduction in the Senate. This involved gathering and incorporating significant stakeholder and technical feedback from federal agencies, university and National Lab researchers, nonprofit organizations, relevant companies, and staff in other Senate offices. After many rounds of drafting with the Senate’s lawyers, Senator Luján introduced the bill with the backing of eight other Senators — a strong coalition. After my departure from the office, this bill will be carried forward by my colleagues.

Before this fellowship, I was most curious about what the legislative staff actually do, day to day, so here it is: On any given day, I could have meetings with a diverse collection of people (companies, trade organizations, think tanks, constituent groups, government agencies, other Congressional staff), brief the Senator on current issues or legislative strategy, write memos for the Senator’s upcoming meetings or Committee business, draft bills or letters the Senator will lead, make recommendations to join another Member’s bill or letter, make requests for Congressional appropriations, or work with our communications team to put together press materials for legislation in my portfolio. All of this is underwritten by constant learning — reading policy briefs and reports, reviewing legislative text, receiving Congressional briefings by subject matter experts, and gathering insights from the incredible nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Throughout the fellowship I used the soft skills from my Ph.D. training to summarize long policy documents into concise memos — sometimes as short as a note card! I fact-checked claims and statistics, critically reviewed scores of bills and amendments, and brought my experience of working at a National Laboratory to inform how the Senator advocated for New Mexico’s National Laboratory needs. For example, any experimentalist knows the importance of functioning laboratory infrastructure and equipment. Along with my fellowship mentor, himself a former nuclear engineer, I was able to help Senator Luján secure $2,000,000,000 for Department of Energy laboratory infrastructure and modernization in the Inflation Reduction Act, which is now law. Yes, that is $2 billion. And there is still much more work to be done!

The IEEE-USA Congressional Fellowship has been educational, rewarding and at times surreal — and it helped pivot my career from one of scientific research to one of science policy. I’ve seen how Congress, in service to their constituents, works to support the American scientific enterprise. They know it is one of our best assets, addressing the world’s greatest challenges and strengthening our economy in the process. With the fellowship behind me, I will continue working at the intersection of science and government as a Federal Relations Officer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

I am immensely grateful for this experience, and for the opportunity to spend a year working alongside the indefatigable, brilliant staff of the United States Congress.

Dr. Clarissa Bhargava works at the intersection of energy, science, and innovation policy. She was a 2021-2022 IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow serving in the office of U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján on his energy and environment team, where she handled policies relating to emissions reduction strategies, advanced energy technologies, a just energy transition, environmental protection and cleanup, wildfire science, and research at the federal scientific agencies. Prior to the fellowship, Dr. Bhargava studied nanoscale materials for next-generation electronics at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she also worked in science communication as a Marketing and Communications Specialist. She holds a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the University of California Berkeley and a B.S. in the same field from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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