On the very day I arrived on Capitol Hill last June, the energy bill H.R. 6 went to the Senate floor. As a result, I spent the first week of my internship with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources researching facts about geothermal power and other renewable energy sources to prepare for the ensuing debate. (If anyone’s wondering about the MIT Energy Initiative’s impact on real-world politics, I pulled data for a floor chart from The Future of Geothermal Energy, a report by an MIT-led panel, and I saw staffers on both sides of the aisle reading that report and MIT studies on nuclear power and coal.) Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), one of the bill’s sponsors and chairman of the committee, requested floor privileges for the interns so we could have a front-row seat for the debate.
I spent hours watching Bingaman eloquently argue for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS)–a policy mandating that utility companies generate a certain percentage of the nation’s energy from alternative sources–as Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) lambasted the Democratic idea and proposed a more relaxed RPS that would have included nuclear power and energy efficiency measures as “renewables.” After a particularly heated debate about wind power in his home state, Ken Salazar (D-Colorado) came by and told my boss, the committee chief of staff, to help “win this one for us.” One afternoon I almost walked into Barack Obama (D-Illinois) as I exited the chamber.
My stint in DC began the day after I graduated from MIT. Less than 30 hours after picking up my mechanical-engineering degree in Killian Court, I was moving into a dorm room at George Washington University. As a Truman fellow, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill for the summer while living with a group of about 50 graduates from around the nation. I also took part in several events organized for the Course XVII program that places MIT and University of Virginia engineering students in policy positions in Washington for the summer. As a result, I got to meet and speak with State Department officials and White House science advisor John Marburger–as well as MIT president Susan Hockfield and president emeritus Charles Vest.
The energy bill consumed what seemed like a long three weeks, but it passed the Senate with amendments after a relatively short period of debate. Bingaman’s RPS didn’t make it into the final bill, but corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards were increased for the first time in decades. More ethanol production was mandated, along with energy efficiency in government buildings, research on carbon sequestration, and price controls on gasoline.