Are you sure it isn't frozen?

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Blame Congress for Inaction on the Arctic

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The U.S. is behind Russia and several other nations in mobilizing for the impact of the Arctic's melting, the New York Times reported this weekend. With Barack Obama in Alaska where he is speaking on the issue, the center of attention is on the president. 

QuickTake Arctic Opportunity

Daniel Drezner was quick to criticize articles like this, saying they incite panic over peripheral issues.  I had a different reaction. There may or may not be a story about the Obama administration's handling of the consequences of Arctic melting. But I immediately thought of Congress, because this is exactly the kind of challenge it has left itself unable to cope with.

Once upon a time, Congress eagerly sought the scientific knowledge needed for such a daunting problem. It founded the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972 to give “Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of … complex scientific and technical issues.” Excellent idea and excellent execution -- up until 1995, when Speaker Newt Gingrich and his House radicals shut it down.

Also once upon a time, congressional committees and their senior members -- especially in the House, where specialization has traditionally been encouraged -- built up quite a bit of knowledge. This may still be the case for House Democrats, but House Republicans instituted term limits for committee chairmen (also in 1995, also thanks to Gingrich). The current chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the previous Congress. He is a capable legislator, but he can’t be as good at his job as someone with years of narrow concentration on one committee’s business.

Finally, expertise at the congressional staff level has also deteriorated over time. Congress has put more resources into public relations, while continuing to emphasize district operations. Something had to give, and it turned out to be the professionals  -- the ones who can help legislate as well as provide oversight over the federal bureaucracy. It doesn't help that Congress has been cutting its own budget since Republicans achieved a House majority in 2011.

Washington Monthly’s Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards call all of this “the Big Lobotomy” Congress doesn’t have the capacity to do what it once did.

That leaves Congress dependent on lobbyists for expertise in too many areas and weakens its oversight abilities. This may mean the president gets his way more often, but mostly it just leaves the executive-branch bureaucracy to do whatever it wants. No wonder the government is slow to react to new challenges. Congress is almost entirely missing in the New York Times story, and seems to have done little in this area.

Drezner may be correct that the Times overhyped a "Russia is coming" threat, but this doesn't mean nothing is at stake. Melting ice creates challenges for resources, transportation, diplomacy and more.  I’d feel a lot better about U.S. policy in the Arctic if Congress was more visible in doing its part.

  1. I wonder what Drezner has to say about the saddest bit of the Times article: “The United States, by contrast, has not even ratified the law of the sea treaty, leaving it on the sidelines of territorial jockeying.”

  2. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has opposed Obama administration efforts to designate more of the Arctic as protected wilderness. Her Energy Committee held a hearing on the Arctic in March, and the House Transportation Committee had an Arctic hearing last July. Other than that, it appears Congress has paid little attention to the issue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net