Washington being what it is, yesterday saw widespread interest all across town in the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on mis-management of appropriated funds within the National Weather Service. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) chaired the proceedings. Dr. Jane Lubchenco (Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator) and Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan (Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, Deputy Administrator of NOAA and Acting Chief Scientist) provided testimony.
From the coverage, several points seem clear. First, no one – either in the Congress, or in the executive branch, from the lowest levels of the National Weather Service to the highest levels of the Department of Commerce and the White House – is happy about what has occurred. Second, all share a common interest in seeing that any mismanagement isn’t repeated. Third, rank-and-file NWS employees and the public they serve should not be punished by furloughs – some other fix must be attempted. Fourth, we haven’t heard the last of any of this. Members of Congress have expressed dissatisfaction with respect to the Commerce investigation, and have also opined that similar breaches may have occurred in other federal agencies, elsewhere within the executive branch. That might reasonably be interpreted as a sign that all parties recognize this event was not prompted by any self-interest. Rather it was the result of gradually ever-more-strenuous and problematic efforts to balance declining budgets year-upon-year while keeping agencies moving forward, in the face of constrained dialog between the administration and the Congress.
The Government Executive account contains another passage that merits some reflection. Here’s the quote:
“Thursday’s hearing, held in a cramped, windowless room in the Capitol, was occasionally tense. While members from both political parties praised Lubchenco for acting swiftly to address the incident, some Republican lawmakers used the meeting to criticize the Obama administration for a lack of respect for Congress.”
Some readers may have been in one of these small hearing rooms. In the Capitol proper, these hearings can have members of Congress and those giving testimony on opposite sides of the same table, at the same level , just a few feet apart. This is in distinction to the large physical separation in distance and disparity in elevation that characterize the physical layout of the cavernous hearing rooms with elevated ceilings of the newer Senate and House office buildings.
The former, more intimate settings force recognition by all parties that “we – those of us in this room – we’re in this together.” They encourage the behavior and actions apparently seen yesterday which balance fixing the problem as well as the blame. [This is not to say such comity isn’t often achieved in the larger, grander venues; just saying that the smaller setting lends itself to this result more readily.]
Similarly, the account suggests that there was heavy criticism of parties not in the room. Relatively easy to lapse into this mode when people’s backs are turned.
In sum, there’s reason to be encouraged, and reason for lament.
We can all be glad to see real dialogue on the causes and fixes for a serious problem. However, we can regret that it’s so easy for all of us to fail to include larger groups of people in our circle of trust.
Years ago, when I was a scientist in NOAA’s Boulder laboratories, I worked for a lab director who was brilliant, ethical, and visionary. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was a near-perfect boss. But his views were flawed in one particular. He lacked respect for the NOAA counterparts and others he met and worked with in Washington. He sold those of us in his laboratory on the erroneous idea that we were an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. He had the “excellent” part right – we were good at what we did. But he was wrong about the “mediocrity” part. Others were good too. It took me years of first coming here on work-related visits from Boulder, and then moving here to work full-time, to discover a much better working model… “these folks from DC are as intelligent and high-minded as I am, if not more so. What is it about the universe here that makes their behavior very-nearly ideal?”
Ecologists have this correct attitude. When they dive on the reef and encounter the poisonous pufferfish, the shark, and the sea slug, they don’t say, “two out of three of you must be wrong.” Instead they ask, “what is it about this ecosystem that makes each of the three of you ideal?”
You and I trust and respect the people in the same room. We trust their motives. We admire their accomplishments. Let’s work to develop that same appreciation for the vast majority we don’t know so well. And let’s work together to solve the complex and urgent problems we jointly face.