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The Last Of A Breed

Retiring House Republican Sherwood L. Boehlert reflects on his support for science, environment

by Lois R. Ember
August 21, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 34

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Twelve-term house veteran Sherwood L. Boehlert is an unabashed cheerleader for investments in science, an avid booster of the environment, and, he would add, a fanatic baseball fan. He is also an endangered species, one of the last of a breed.

The congressman from upstate New York, whose district includes the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, is considered a centrist, moderate Republican. He wears that label proudly.

Moderate Republicans are fast fading from the congressional landscape. Their numbers will dwindle by at least one next year, from about 20 today, because in March, Boehlert announced that he will give up his seat at the end of this legislative session.

Boehlert turns 70 next month, and two years ago he had triple-by-pass heart surgery. In his retirement announcement—which, he stresses, he wrote himself—he used two words to explain why after 24 productive years in Congress he has decided not to run for reelection: "It's time."

He has been on Capitol Hill almost continuously since 1964, when he began serving as chief of staff for New York Republican Representative Alexander Pirnie and then for Pirnie's successor, Donald Mitchell. He left Washington, D.C., in 1979 to return home to run successfully for Oneida county executive.

Three years later, he successfully ran for the House seat vacated by Mitchell and has been reelected ever since. Indeed, he is the longest serving Republican lawmaker in New York's congressional delegation and has chaired the Science Committee for the past six years.

Over the years, Boehlert has voted with his conservative Republican brethren on economic issues. On almost all other issues, however, he has voted so often with Democrats that his name usually appears near the top of lists of House Republicans who have often opposed President George W. Bush and broken with the Republican caucus on party-line votes.

Not unexpectedly then, Boehlert has racked up higher approval ratings from liberal watchdog groups than from conservative ones. Environmental groups consider him one of the "greenest" Republicans in the House. So it comes as no surprise to learn that President Theodore Roosevelt, whom Boehlert calls "the first great environmentalist," ranks high on his list of heroes.

When asked why he is the kind of Republican he is, Boehlert replies that, during his formative political years, his governor was Nelson A. Rockefeller and his two U.S. senators were Jacob K. Javits and Kenneth B. Keating. "Rockefeller, Javits, and Keating were among the most progressive Republicans in the history of the party," he contends.

When he came to Congress in 1983, he quickly formed a close working relationship with Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a liberal Republican and another of Boehlert's mentors. Over the years, Boehlert has also successfully formed alliances with like-minded Democrats. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with California Democrat Henry A. Waxman, and together they pushed through an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990 that, as Boehlert likes to say, "launched the nation's war on acid rain."

Boehlert considers the acid rain initiative a major part of his legislative legacy. He proudly displays a letter from President George H. W. Bush and the pen that the first Bush used to sign what Boehlert calls "historic legislation" into law.

Bush's letter and signing pen are among many that adorn Boehlert's office walls. Absent from those walls are the more traditional "grip-and-grin" photos usually found in congressional offices that show the lawmaker with presidents and other dignitaries. Instead, photos of his family circle those walls, and outside in his cramped foyer are enlarged photos of baseball greats.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Boehlert has been shaping environmental policy ever since his push for the pioneering pollution trading program that has since substantially reduced sulfur emissions from power plants and thus acid rain. Over the years, he has staunchly supported mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases, safeguards for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), fuel-economy standards, and, of course, protections for endangered species.

Boehlert attributes his success on acid rain to the "great partnership" he had with Waxman and bemoans the absence of bipartisanship today. To work with a member of the opposite party is today "almost considered—and I'm a Catholic—something that requires that you go to confession."

He says that in 24 years on Capitol Hill, "I have never seen a higher degree of partisanship or a lower level of politics. That is a sad commentary; things have to change." One of the things he plans for retirement is do whatever he can to bring about some of that change.

In contrast to Congress as a whole, the absence of partisanship on the Science Committee has been a hallmark of Boehlert's six years as chairman. "I take great pride in pointing out that if you took a final legislative document to a forensic lab, you'd find the fingerprints of just about every committee member all over it.

"I also take great pride in pointing out that we were the only committee of many dealing with energy policy that reported out our final energy bill by voice vote on what was a highly partisan issue," he continues. Now, some might say that the Science Committee didn't deal with any contentious issues, but Boehlert begs to differ.

To prove his point, he ticks off the issues his panel confronted: clean-coal technology, nuclear energy, ultra-deep-sea drilling. "We sorted out our differences" because the aim was to "shape the most responsible energy policy for America, not the best Democratic proposal or the best Republican proposal," he explains.

Interestingly, when the final energy package came up for a House vote last year, Boehlert displayed his vaunted independence: He voted against it. "In the final analysis," he explains, "the minuses outweighed the pluses, so I didn't vote for it." He was the only House committee chairman and highest profile Republican to not support what he calls "the Republican bill."

Boehlert found the bill "insufficient because it failed to address the need to deal with the energy crisis in a responsible way." President George W. Bush thought otherwise and signed it into law as the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Instead of looking for another place to drill for oil and gas, Boehlert contends that "we should be talking about conservation and the CAFE standards." For Boehlert, improving CAFE-corporate average fuel economy-standards, which he has been trying to do for the past six years, "represents a no-brainer." As he notes, "the technology exists; it's off-the-shelf technology."

He argues that his legislation, which would increase fleet average fuel efficiency in new cars from 25 to 33 mpg over a 10-year period, would save more energy "than we would ever get even under the most optimistic projections of what might be available from drilling in ANWR."

After Hurricane Katrina struck and gasoline prices spiked to more than $3 per gal, Boehlert asked the House Rules Committee and the Republican leadership for yet another vote on his CAFE standards as part of floor deliberations on the energy bill.

As Boehlert explains it, fuel efficiency standards are "contrary to the party's position." When the leadership "took an informal survey and discovered that I had the votes to get my amendment passed," he says they wouldn't allow the House to consider it.

Ever the optimist, Boehlert believes that Congress will pass fuel efficiency standards before he leaves office in December. "Republicans enjoy being in the majority, and I keep pointing out to them that there are several ways we can stay in the majority. One of them is to respond in a responsible way to the energy crisis by passing CAFE standards."

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

When asked if the Bush Administration understands and incorporates scientific consensus into policy-making, Boehlert finesses the question. He says he's told the President, "When I talk to you one-on-one on high-profile, contentious issues that tend to divide people, like global climate change or CAFE standards, I feel better after the conversation." Then, he says that after a suitably long, dramatic pause he added, "It's your staff that screws up."

Boehlert thinks "a lot of people within the Administration—and I don't put this at the President's door—don't give adequate consideration to the science of an issue." He often reminds himself that he works "in a town and within an institution where people like to say they are for science-based decision-making until the scientific consensus leads to a politically inconvenient conclusion. Then they want to go to Plan B."

Because of this tendency, Boehlert has had to exercise a lot of damage control over the years. In 1995, then-House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), inserted what became known as 17 "riders from hell" in an Environmental Protection Agency spending bill that would have weakened existing environmental regulations. Boehlert led the opposition, and all 17 riders were defeated.

More recently, he has warded off attacks on the Endangered Species Act, on ANWR, and on scientists working on climate change. When National Aeronautics & Space Administration scientist James E. Hansen revealed that he was being barred from speaking at a conference on global climate change, Boehlert immediately and very publicly chastised NASA and launched an investigation into the muzzling effort.

Boehlert's investigation revealed "no trail of evidence that would lead one to believe that the [directive] came from the NASA administrator or the White House," he says. Instead, he says, Science Committee staff traced the directive back to a young, low-level NASA public affairs operative who subsequently resigned over an unrelated matter.

Boehlert does not absolve Congress from playing politics with the issue of global warming. He cites what he considers egregious antics of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, which shares primary jurisdiction on the issue with the Science Committee.

"Does Energy & Commerce hold hearings to bring in experts to be better informed on the issue of global climate change? No." Instead, he says, the committee carries out an intensive investigation of Michael E. Mann, a prominent expert on the science of climate change and professor at Pennsylvania State University, demanding four years of documentation for every dollar he and his associates received from grants. "That was well beyond the pale," Boehlert says.

Boehlert immediately issued a public rebuke to the committee. "I said, 'Instead of being informed by science, you are trying to intimidate scientists.' " He also asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on global climate change. Boehlert's summary of that study is succinct: "Global climate change is for real. Man has produced the problem. We better damn well do something about it."

You can just about hear Boehlert gloat when he notes that in mid-July the Energy & Commerce Committee finally held a hearing on the science of climate change and invited Mann to testify.

In addition to the legislation he has promoted and the laws he's protected, Boehlert is very pleased with the way he's molded the structure and portfolio of the Science Committee. When he took over as chairman, the committee was viewed as the space committee. He has broadened the committee's portfolio, thus transforming it into one that is "recognized as having significant impact on shaping not just science policy but environmental policy, energy policy, and education policy," he says.

Yes, the committee still deals with the space program. But, as Boehlert points out, it also wrote significant portions of the No Child Left Behind initiative dealing with math and science education. And it contributed provisions dealing with clean-coal technology, ultra-deep-sea drilling, and R&D investments in alternative energy sources to the 2005 energy bill that the President signed into law.

Boehlert has also "specialized the committee to a degree that has never before been seen." When he assumed the chairmanship in 2001, the staff, though capable, had no professional with a Ph.D. onboard. Today it has seven. The committee's chief of staff, David J. Goldston, one of the seven, has been with Boehlert for all of the congressman's 24 years in the House.

Remember though, Boehlert came to Capitol Hill 42 years ago, and then, he says, cronyism reigned. Committee staff came from members' political campaigns or were children of major contributors. Today, staff members are professional, versed in committee-relevant areas, and "unheralded for the most part," Boehlert says. "They don't get the proper recognition they deserve."


The staff of the Science Committee has helped Boehlert make his signature bills the law of the land. High on that list of legislation-and in bill-signing photos on Boehlert's office walls-are the Nanotechnology R&D Act of 2003 and the Cyber Security R&D Act of 2002.

As significant as those measures are, Boehlert proclaims that "one of the proudest moments of my life and one of the biggest accomplishments of the Science Committee has been the launching of the American Competitiveness Initiative." ACI aims to boost funding for the physical sciences significantly, much as previous efforts did for the biological sciences.

To that end, ACI will double funding over a 10-year period for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Science & Technology. The House has appropriated funds for the three science agencies, and the House Science Committee has approved education legislation related to ACI. The Senate is still working on related legislation.

Before there was congressional action on ACI, there were intense back-stage maneuverings last December. Then, Boehlert and several House colleagues lobbied the White House and sponsored a daylong conference on innovation. Those efforts were successful in getting the President to announce ACI in his January State of the Union address.

Boehlert believes ACI will thrive because the physical sciences community, industrial titans, and Republicans and Democrats alike are behind greater investments in the physical sciences and math education. There is, he says, "great support and recognition that we can't just deal with the biological sciences, we also have to deal with the physical sciences" because they are so interrelated.

NASA's research is not directly being funded under ACI, but its funding is increasing slightly to support the President's Vision for Space Exploration initiative. Boehlert supports the increase but not the agency's shift from basic science to mission-directed space exploration research. NASA, he says emphatically, "should not be a one-mission agency." He expresses "deep concern about the heavy emphasis on the space exploration program at the expense of investments in science and aeronautics in the NASA budget."

He is also not too pleased with the performance of the Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate. The Science Committee was instrumental in getting an undersecretary for science and technology written into the 2002 law creating the department.

Boehlert boils his frustration with the directorate down to one word: inadequate. As a self-described "results-oriented guy," Boehlert asks: "What has been accomplished? Big question mark. How much farther ahead are we at guaranteeing port security? How are we using science and technology to secure our borders?" Why, he asks, has DHS not filled the top cybersecurity position? The Internet, he notes, can be used to disrupt the financial system, interfere with electric grids, "bring the nation to its knees."

Such concerns will fall to the next Science Committee chairman. If the Republicans retain control of the House, Ralph Hall of Texas is likely to become chairman. If the Democrats take control, Bart Gordon of Tennessee is likely to succeed Boehlert. Either one, Boehlert says, will maintain the committee's collegial, bipartisan tone so notable under Boehlert, and both strongly support investment in science.

It's not likely the committee will remain as green under Hall as it has been over the past six years, however. Boehlert says Hall has often joked at hearings "that I have never seen a tree that I didn't want to hug, and he's never seen a plot of land, including a cemetery, that he doesn't want to drill in."

After 42 years on Capitol Hill, 24 as a congressman, Boehlert is looking forward to getting off the grueling treadmill and doing what he wants to do. He's looking forward to discarding those now ever-present cards that list his appointments for the day, sometimes for seven days a week. But, he says, "I'm not going to buy a rocking chair, put it on the back porch, and sit and do nothing."

He expects to continue contributing to public policy, "to be involved on a continuing basis in trying to shape public policy." But, he insists, "it's not going to be on a full-time basis, and it's going to be under our terms, my wife's and mine."

For all these past years, Boehlert has set his alarm clock for six o'clock. "I look forward to that day in January when the alarm goes off and I can roll over, turn it off, and go back to sleep."


From Science Committee Chair To Baseball Owner

Sherwood L. Boehlert earned a B.S. from Utica College in 1961 and then became the manager of public relations for Wyandotte Chemical Co. From this, you might surmise that his degree was in chemistry, but in fact, it was in public relations.

"A lot of people are surprised that I'm not a chemist," he tells C&EN. "People say to me, 'How did you end up being on the House Science Committee?' "

The answer is simple: There were vacancies on the Science Committee in 1983 when Boehlert began serving in Congress, and the House leadership appointed him to the committee. But, with tongue firmly in cheek, Boehlert likes to embellish the story a bit. As he tells it, "The lords of the backroom looked at my résumé and said that the last science course this guy Boehlert took was high school chemistry and he got a C, so he's a natural for the Science Committee."

They were absolutely correct. "And, here's why. I'm a generalist, not a specialist," Boehlert explains. As often as not, he'll "ask the most obvious questions that others are reluctant to ask" and elicit information the committee needs to shape public policy.

In his freshman year on the committee, Boehlert remembers a Nobel Laureate urging the federal government to invest more heavily in computer technology. From those beginnings, Boehlert says, "came the supercomputer initiative of the federal government, and I was part of that in 1983."

Even after all these years, Boehlert hasn't lost his gee-whiz excitement for science. It still only takes him "a nanosecond to appreciate that science is the key to unlocking the door to the future."

Neither has he lost his fervor for baseball. "Cooperstown is the epicenter of my district," Boehlert says. "It's baseball's Mecca. It's almost a religious experience to go there."

Baseball for Boehlert has also been a financial bonanza, although he never intended it to be so. In 1985, this self-proclaimed "baseball nut" got a chance to become a minority owner of the Utica Blue Sox. He invested $1,000 as a limited partner in the franchise that then cost $75,000. In 2000, the team was sold to future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. for $3 million. Boehlert received a check for $19,000. Not a bad return on a $1,000 investment.



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