After years of dire warnings, inaction, false starts, and lofty ambitions, in 2021 we finally did make a big investment in the country’s infrastructure. President Biden called the bill a “big deal” and promised it would rebuild the backbone of this nation.” What had been known in the Senate as the “BIF” or bipartisan infrastructure framework, became the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (HR 3684), and on November 15, 2021, became Public Law 117-58. The amount of new spending in the bill (about $550 billion) is similar in inflation-adjusted terms to the cost of the Interstate Highway System constructed during the Eisenhower administration, according to the New York Times. In other words, a big deal!
Weighing in at 1,039 pages, the legislation authorizes and appropriates funds for a wide array of Federal programs, principally in the areas of surface transportation, energy, drinking water and wastewater, and broadband. The total dollars ($1.2 trillion) cover, in addition to new spending, extending existing programs that otherwise would have expired. The energy provisions were developed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by its chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). This portion of the Act represents about $65 billion of investment and 170 pages of text, covering grid infrastructure and resiliency; clean energy supply chains; fuels and technology infrastructure, including for hydrogen, nuclear, and hydropower; and energy efficiency and building infrastructure. Perhaps little noticed among these many priorities, under the title “Enabling Energy Infrastructure Investment And Data Collection,” you can find 10 pages of provisions relating to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an independent statistical agency housed in the Department of Energy. I will attest personally to the thought and effort that went into that text, being closely involved in its creation over the period of my 2020-21 Congressional Fellowship, sponsored by IEEE-USA.
Although I did not come to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource (ENR) staff with any particular background relating to the EIA, I did carry a particular interest to work on problems related to the clean energy transition, and felt fortunate to get a placement with ENR. I felt doubly fortunate in having a senior professional staff member as a mentor who was generous with his time and connections, enabling me fairly readily to tap into a network of people and ideas that would form the basis for a set of recommendations. Everyone on the committee staff went out of their way (virtually) to help get me on board. That process was entirely remote-work at the start, and for the first seven months of the fellowship year. Even when in-person work returned, the Capitol complex existed in an unusually rarefied state, with only members and the staff regularly allowed in the buildings.
Despite those pandemic-related restrictions, the 2020-21 fellowship year was an eventful one. We witnessed the passage of an omnibus spending bill, including the continuation of coronavirus relief, the Energy Act of 2020 (the first reauthorization of DOE in over a decade), the control of the newly split Senate changing from Republican to Democrat, the not-peaceful transfer of presidential power on January 6, as well as the passage (by the Senate) of a bipartisan infrastructure framework that represents a generational commitment to investments in the country’s technological backbone. Every one of those things is consequential for Americans in ways that may not be understood fully for years to come.
Having a ringside seat at the unfolding of significant national events was one of the thrills of serving as a Congressional Fellow. For someone who has spent a career in the practice of research, analysis, writing, and teaching, another joy was finding an entire branch of Congress — the Congressional Research Service — that rivals an entire university faculty in its concentration of professional expertise and production of research. Another revelation to me was the depth and extent of the ecosystem of PhD-level analysts and consultants working in think tanks and other organizations for the primary purpose of delivering policy-related research findings and recommendations, both to members of Congress and to the broader public. Finally, working on ENR in particular meant having a certain level of access to scientists and engineers in the National Labs, ten of which are under the committee’s jurisdiction.
The existence of all those sources of outstanding scientific and technical expertise might leave an impression that there is little room or need for yet one more engineer to throw their efforts into the mix. I found exactly the opposite to be true. All of those organizations that are sourcing technical information to Congress have their own rules, constraints and agendas. I found my niche in being an integrative node within the committee, helping to request and receive information from a diverse set of sources, sometimes on short notice, with a unique lens dictated by the committee’s priorities — in other words, acting a lot like any other professional staff member. My presence meant that some valuable projects that would otherwise have languished for lack of staff bandwidth were able to move forward. Given the scale and complexity of our technological society, there will always be more that’s worth doing than there will be the knowledgeable and committed people able to do it. Congressional Fellows can have an outsize impact by showing up, diving in, and learning how the messy process of representative democracy actually works.
I returned to my campus roles after the fellowship year resolved to keep working on aspects of the clean energy transition, even if unsure exactly what that will mean for me personally. Besides having acquired some new branches in my professional network, I have a much more nuanced view of what policy-making looks like, and how advocates exert influence in the process. Whether it’s science in support of policy-making, or policy for the support of scientific research, or (usually) some combination of both, the scope of work of a Congressional Fellow offers a unique opportunity for learning, engagement and professional growth.
Rod Beresford is a Professor Engineering at Brown University, researching and teaching in the areas of electronic materials and devices. As a 2020-2021 IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow, he joined the Democratic staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, where he worked on renewable energy and decarbonization issues.