A couple of days ago, I myself and three other young people were in a meeting with one of Senator Jeff Merkley’s field staff in Portland, Oregon. We were there to talk about the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, which Senator Merkley is already working to pass in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. A freshman senator, Merkley has quickly emerged as a champion for clean energy and climate issues in the Senate, and the four of us in the meeting didn’t have to convince his office of the need for comprehensive climate legislation. However, despite the fact that we do have a few good climate champions like Jeff Merkley in the Senate, his field assistant was quite frank with us: passing Kerry-Boxer in the Senate while keeping the best provisions of the bill intact is not going to be easy. It’s going to be really, really hard.
“Really hard” does not mean it can’t be done. However, one of Kerry-Boxer’s most significant improvements over the climate bill which the House of Representatives passed this summer is going to come under violent attack as the bill moves through the Senate. This is the provision of Kerry-Boxer which preserves EPA authority to regulate greenhouse emissions from coal plants and other sources under the Clean Air Act. With that provision in the bill, Congress can pass a less-than-perfect climate bill, and the EPA will still be able to provide a regulatory “safety net,” making sure that we don’t slide backward in national efforts to curb pollution from coal plants. With the EPA’s authority removed, however, the situation becomes frankly frightening: Kerry-Boxer could actually take us backwards by hamstringing the EPA’s ability to make full use of the Clean Air Act, and failing to replace Clean Air Act protections with equally tough standards for coal power.
It’s time to rally around the Clean Air Act, and let our senators know this isn’t up for compromise. Read on for the five simplest steps YOU can take to make this happen.
1) Call your senator’s office up, and ask for a meeting. Look up the district office locations of your state’s US senators, and find the one closest to you. Call the phone number provided, and you’ll get the office’s front desk. Tell the staffer your name, any organization you feel you can represent (either a campus group or a regional organization), and that you want to set up a meeting with a field representative from the senator’s office for a group of students. At that point, the staffer will probably transfer you to the phone of a scheduler or environmental policy specialist for the office. If that person isn’t available, leave a message that includes your phone number, and ask them to call you back.
2) Follow up on your first call. Senators’ staff are busy people, and the person you leave a message with may not get back to you right away. If you don’t hear anything within a week, it’s time to call again. If you have to leave another message, politely explain that you called about a week ago, and are just checking on the status of your request for a meeting. If you still don’t get any response this second time, you can always try again. But chances are someone will get back to you; calling twice shows you’re serious about getting a meeting.
3) Get a group together. Once you’ve scheduled your meeting with the senator’s office (or even before) put together a small group of students to come. This takes some planning, and it’s important to allow yourself enough time to make it happen. But you DO know 2-4 other people who can come to meet with their senator’s office to help pass a good climate policy. Face it: an inside opportunity to talk with the office of a US Senator sounds pretty cool. Talk it up. Make it sound exciting, and important – after all, it is. Almost certainly, there are people out there who will bite.
4) Show up to the meeting. On the appointed day, show up at your senator’s office with your group, ready to talk to the staffer about passing a strong federal climate bill. Let them know that protection of the Clean Air Act is not something that can be sacrificed as the Kerry-Boxer legislation moves through the Senate. If you’re representing any type of organization with an opinion on this issue, let them know. If you feel that many people on your campus or in your community share your views on climate legislation, mention that as well. Always be polite (alienating your target is a bad idea), but be firm that you want your senator to prevent the Clean Air Act from becoming a political bargaining chip.
5) Follow up. During the meeting, it’s great if you can let the staffer know that you plan on following up on this issue. Maybe there’s more information about your campus group that you can forward to the senator’s office. Or maybe you’re planning a campus event related to this issue, and can send them an email about how it went. Following up helps show that you take the issue seriously.
These in-person meetings with the staff of members of Congress are one of the most widely overlooked but extremely meaningful tools available for college campus activists. Compared to some projects you could take on, scheduling a meeting at your senator’s office and getting a small group of people to show up does not actually take that much effort. The payoff, however, can be huge: this is how members of Congress know what their student voters are thinking. Don’t believe that the meeting won’t have any impact if you can only talk to a staffer: these are the people senators rely on for information about what’s happening in-district.
This week, Senate hearings on the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act got started. We’re at the beginning of a long fight, but it won’t take long for the Clean Air Act to come under attack. Now is the time to pick up the phone, and get started on scheduling a meeting with your senator’s office. This may be the most important thing you do all semester.