You Can be a Victim of Public Policy or an Engaged Player in the System

Our Virginia Tree Farm delegation met with staff members from the offices of Jerry Connolly (my congressman), Mark Warner, Jim Webb & Eric Cantor.  The ATFS convention was held in Washington this year and they wanted to take advantage of the presence of hundreds of tree farmers in the capital (how exciting!).  We had tree farmers from most states in our nation’s capital. I suppose our meeting with only staffers shows our relative lack of political clout.  Tree farmers are not a feared interest group. Two actual members took the time to meet with us personally: Robert Wittman & Robert Goodlatte. I was impressed with both, and not only because they were nice enough to talk with us.  

All politicians are charming.  That is how they get and keep their jobs.  In addition, however, these guys really seemed to understand forestry issues and were genuinely interested in protecting the environment. I suppose that is one reason they talked to us. I think it may also be because they both come from rural districts, where get some real experience with agriculture, forestry and hunting.  They were really on top of some of our esoteric issues, such as the use of woody biomass in energy and biosolids applied to the land.

And we are interested in some esoteric issues.  For example, forestry prefers a broad definition of biomass to include woody biomass. The woody biomass we are talking about, BTW, is mostly the branches, bark and odd pieces left after forest harvests.  Biomass is already used to fuel mills that make paper or process wood, but more could be done. The advantage of woody biomass is that it is produced widely and could be used in small plants.  This is also a disadvantage. It tends to be locally available and heavy to move. 

This is a bigger issue than it seems for the Federal government, because government picks winners and losers in the energy market.  Other sources of alternative energy get privileged by government money and programs.  Woody biomass makes a lot of sense for Virginia and the Southeast, where there are lots of forests and would be used more widely if other forms of energy didn’t get direct and indirect government favors and subsidies and/or if the government “help” was applied evenly.  Anyway, that was one of the things I explained.  I also emphasized that forestry in Virginia is sustainable, now and forever.   That is simple and true, but it must be repeated.

Most of the real work of the Congress is done by very young staffers and those are the kinds of people we met.  They are really smart, but I worry about their lack of experience.  Maybe ferocious intelligence coupled with lack of experience can actually be a disadvantage.  I don’t know.  They seem to do okay. They need the energy of youth to cope with their daunting schedule. You only have a short time to make your point and then get out.   It seems like a superficial way to get constituent input.   Of course, Otto von Bismarck warned that you should never watch either laws or sausage being made.

We also met the famous Joe Wilson. One of our colleagues used to rent a house from Joe Wilson in South Carolina so when we passed him in the hall, he stopped to talk.  It was a short meeting and I didn’t ask about the Obama comment.  He seemed a nice guy.  But, as I wrote above, all politicians are charming in person.  

IMO, politicians don’t get the credit they deserve. Most are smart and motivated – at least initially – by the desire to do good.  And it is a hard job, maybe a job that has grown too big as the reach of government has expanded into parts of our daily lives where it may not belong. Too many people come around asking too many things.  And if others come, you have to be there too. Even if you don’t want to ask anything directly from government, you have to have lobbyists to protect yourself from what others who have lobbyists asking government to do that impact you. 

One consultant told us that we could be either, “victims of public policy or engaged players in the system.”  He implied there was no third option.  Pity. A citizen is free to the extent that he can safely ignore politics.  That sphere is shrinking.

I don’t know when politicians really have time to think, what with all the tight schedules and need to posture for the media. The wealth of activity has created a poverty of attention.  When good people don’t have time to do a good job, maybe the system is overloaded, overextended and overreaching.  If you can’t do more well, maybe it is best to choose to do less better and expand that sphere where citizens can ignore politics.  But thinking that could happen is probably the triumph of hope over experience. 

Anyway, we played our part.  We “deployed our talking points,” so now everybody in Congress understands forestry, supports all our legitimate positions and will do the right things.  But I wouldn’t like to be a full-time lobbyist.  I couldn’t take the constant shallow dives.  I enjoyed the experience of doing it for one day. That is enough. The Constitution gives me the right to petition my government, but I don’t much like the drive by fashion such petitioning has acquired.