Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Living in DC as a sort-of furloughed worker during the longest government shutdown in US history

By Jillian Mayer

Note: This blog post was written February 14, 2019, on the eve of the end of the 2019 partial government shutdown.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Photo: Jillian Mayer

The first thing you need to know when beginning a job in federal government is that everything revolves around appropriations. The second thing you need to know is that “budgets” and “appropriations” are different. You can thank me later.

Budgets are issued by the President, federal agencies, and Congress, and have no binding power; budgets merely request how much money parties would like to see spent on various programs within the US government. Appropriations decisions, on the other hand, have teeth: appropriations bills allow various programs to receive designated amounts of funding. Budgets and appropriations don’t necessarily have any relationship to each other. There’s no law that dictates that the appropriations bills passed by Congress and signed into law by Presidents need to reflect the President’s or Congress’s budgets. Budgets are, in legal terms, bullsh*t. Appropriations are what matters, because money flows through appropriations and appropriations only.

Normally, the federal budget and appropriation processes happen in a certain order each year and in time to continue funding our federal government without lapse. Fiscal years (FY) run from October 1 – September 30. The President releases his budget request in February or March the year preceding the fiscal year to which it refers. President Trump released his FY 2019 budget request on Monday, February 12, 2018. Shortly thereafter, individual federal agencies released their budget requests that corresponded to the President’s budget request, but in more detail. Congress responded by passing their own budget resolutions. Although President Trump’s FY 2019 looked scary with severe cuts to social welfare programs, environmental regulatory agencies, and other important government services, it had little bearing on what Congress suggested in their budget resolutions, nor did it dictate appropriations.

Once budgets are established, the process moves to drafting, amending, and passing appropriations bills. In 2018, Congress began appropriations work in April and had over 5 months to pass appropriations for FY 2019. Congress is tasked with passing 12 appropriations bills each year, categorized by general subject matter. For example, the “defense” appropriations bill decides yearly funding levels for all matters within the Department of Defense. The “transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies” appropriations bill funds the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Within each legislative chamber (the House and Senate), an appropriation bill originates in its corresponding subcommittee within the Appropriations Committee, passes the full Appropriations Committee, and passes the whole chamber. The two chambers’ appropriations bills on the same subject may be millions or billions of dollars apart. Congress must wrestle back and forth before ultimately passing the exact same language (bill) through each chamber. Only then is an appropriations bill delivered to the President’s desk to be signed into law. Often, many appropriations bills are combined into one or more omnibus packages that contain several of the 12 bills, to avoid going through this process 12 distinct times before time runs out on September 30th.

Many steps must be completed to avoid a government shutdown. Image: NationalJournal Presentation Center

By the end of 2018, after FY 2019 had started, neither Democrats nor Republicans nor the House nor Senate could agree on 7 of the 12 appropriations bills. 5 had been passed via omnibus before the October deadline, and the remaining 7 continued to be temporarily funded through continuing resolutions. However, the continuing resolutions ran out at midnight on December 21. President Trump insisted that he would not sign any further appropriations without ~$5.7 billion in border-wall funding. The House agreed, the Senate did not. The longest (partial) government shutdown in US history began in the early minutes of December 22, 2018.

With a few exceptions for “essential” federal workers and pre-funded continuing programs, most federal employees working in the fields of agriculture, commerce, justice, science, interior, environment, homeland security, financial services, government services, foreign operations, transportation, housing, and urban development were furloughed. Approximately 800,000 people were not paid for 35 days, and the ripple effects of their leave were massive. The shutdown disrupted ongoing scientific studies, disaster relief, regulation and rule-making, litigation, transportation, public housing, and almost everything else funded in whole or part with discretionary federal dollars (i.e. not mandatory social security, Medicare, and Medicare spending). The cruelty of holding 800,000 Americans’ pay and the human right to immigration for thousands of DACA recipients and refugees as bargaining chips is almost unfathomable, but is upon further reflection par for the course in a country built on slavery, genocide, the exploitation of workers, and other systemic ills. But that’s another essay.

I moved to DC on January 6, two weeks into the five-week shutdown. I had already signed up and started paying for healthcare, rent in my first solo studio apartment, internet, a gym, and student loans. I had budgeted carefully for this year in DC, and was excited for my first “grown up” job with a steady and ample paycheck and regular hours. Our Knauss coordinators at NOAA were already furloughed, and could not readily communicate with us about the fate of our fellowship year. I reached out to contemporary fellows for information. They reported that many Executive fellows were locked out of their offices in federal buildings and their colleagues would have to mail them personal items, like jackets and shoes, left in their offices after the shutdown ended and the Fellowship concluded. The 2019 fellows (my year) were left wondering if they would have jobs come February 1st, our proposed start date. Some fellows postponed moving to DC and stayed in their home states, but the majority of us had already found housing and were moving. 

Moving to DC opens up exciting new travel opportunities. Photo: Jillian Mayer

With nothing to do and no end to the shutdown in sight, I filled my time with getting to know DC. It. Was. Awesome. I volunteered with two food banks: Capital Area Food Bank and DC Central Kitchen. Both are fabulous organizations that I recommend future Knauss fellows check out. Some of the people receiving assistance and almost all of the volunteers were furloughed government employees. We chatted about stalled Department of Justice cases, the inability of US Fish and Wildlife to communicate with state natural resource departments, and the difficulty of affording daycare without a paycheck. There, I got to ask a lot of my “how does government work?!” questions in a judgment-free environment because my fellow volunteers knew the system but weren’t my supervisors. 

I also started volunteering with City Dogs Rescue, another great organization to visit in DC, and fell in love with a pit-bull mix named Barney after taking him home for a weekend “vacation” from the shelter. Hundreds of restaurants, gyms, and clothing stores throughout DC were offering free or low-cost products and services to furloughed workers. My DC utilities company offered to postpone my bills until three months after the shutdown ended. Even my Michigan-based credit union was giving interest-free loans to people affected by the shutdown. I was very lucky, and my myriad privileges (white collar job, able body, health insurance, US passport, lack of dependents, savings account, etc) helped make my temporary furlough fun instead of devastating. Still, I was heartened by the compassionate responses that individuals and private companies extended to government employees. I wish the same generosity were always extended to all people living through crises, but alas. 

Knauss fellows get to be DC tourists, too. Photo: Jillian Mayer 

On January 25, 2019, Trump and Congress agreed to a temporary short-term spending bill that would reopen the government through February 15, 2019, giving Congress time to agree on a new appropriations omnibus bill to end the shutdown. As I write this, it is 8pm on February 14, and the White House has reported that the President will sign the final appropriations without sufficient border-wall funding and declare a national emergency at the border tonight. I’ll find out what happened on my news app in bed, when I wake up tomorrow morning. Most current Knauss fellows were able to start work in early February, though some fellows are still not even in DC and others have had their onboarding delayed still. I have been in my Senator’s office since February 6th, and am already working (more like stumbling, crawling, tripping, gagging, shrugging, huffing, and puffing) on six bills, including one to address harassment in STEM, another to update failing coastal infrastructure, and the Green New Deal. I greatly look forward to the rest of my year on the Hill, despite (or because?) of its interesting start.

After a tenuous beginning, the year is off to a great start. Photo: Jillian Mayer

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Women Who Fish Have Stories to Tell: Part 1

By Erin Burkett, Michigan Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow

"My brookie" Photo: Shawn Rathbun
As a Michigan Sea Grant graduate research fellow, I use a community-driven, social science research method called photovoice to better understand women’s fishing experiences. Photovoice combines individual photography with group storytelling to highlight a group that hasn’t previously been given sufficient attention. Only about one of every five Michigan anglers are women, and, in the past, women have been largely absent from studies asking who fishes and why.

Photovoice projects typically follow these general steps: recruitment, documentation, photowalks, and exhibit or action phase. First, you have to recruit participants. I started by contacting fishing clubs and their members through email, Facebook, and club meetings. I visited bait and tackle shops and stores that sell fishing licenses to explain my project and distribute informational flyers. And finally, I posted flyers in public spaces and contacted women-specific natural resource organizations. I went through this process in two distinct Michigan regions: the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula and metro-Detroit. The following steps were conducted separately within each region.

Anyone interested in joining the project was invited to an informational meeting where I explained what participating in the project might entail. With a little prompting using open-ended questions, the women started sharing their fishing stories and what topics they might want to highlight in their pictures. Something that makes this type of community-engaged research unique is that participants have autonomy and control over the project’s goals and outcomes throughout the entire project. The role of the researcher is to facilitate and observe the process and collect data in the form of transcribed audio recordings of meetings and the photographs and stories shared by the research participants.

"Cooler colors" Photo: Amber Voght.
The next phase of the project was the documentation stage. Over the next few months, each group member was asked to take photographs that represented their fishing experiences. For the most part, everyone used a cell phone camera, and everyone incorporated pictures from their past that still had significant meaning to them.

Keweenaw area project members sharing their photographs and fishing stories during a "photowalk." Photo: Erin Burkett
The next series of 2-3 group meetings, called “photowalks,” is a key component of any photovoice project. Photowalks give each participant ample time to share their photographs and the stories behind them. What happens when you get a group of women anglers together in a room and put their photographs on display? Engaging storytelling, a lot of knowing nods of agreement, and plenty of laughter. Each group discussed their favorite fish to catch and eat, what gear they use, where they fish, who they fish with, how they feel being women in a sport dominated by men, and everything in between.

What’s next?
The exhibit or action stage varies for each unique project. The Keweenaw group created a gallery-style exhibit that is currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw. The exhibit’s title, Connections: Stories From Women Who Fish, refers to the members’ decision to present their experiences as a group, rather than as individuals. As group member Emila Downes explains, “Everyone has an idea about what fishing means to them, but as a community or group, what does fishing mean? It facilitates the connection to everything around us from people to nature. For some it is a break from the world and for others it's a connection to the world. Whatever fishing means to you, it is a way to connect everyone across generations, nationalities, lifestyles, and occupations. It's what brings us together!” Project members have stressed the importance of bringing their stories to multiple audiences, and plan to move the exhibit to multiple venues in the future.

The metro-Detroit project group will share their experiences in a group presentation at the June meeting of the Metro-West Steelheaders. Their main goal is to invite women who want to try fishing or get more active in local fishing clubs, but who might not have had the confidence or experience to try the sport.

Emilia Downes setting up the photography exhibit Connections: Stories from Women Who Fish at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw in Houghton, MI. Photo: Erin Burkett
Introducing the project and group members at the Carnegie Museum's public exhibit opening on February 14, 2019. From left: Amber Voght, Emilia Downes, Cori Fitzpatrick, Denise Vandeville, and Erin Burkett. Photo: Hugh Gorman

Project Highlights
My favorite thing about facilitating this project thus far has been seeing the relationship-building among the participants. They aren’t just swapping fishing stories. They are inviting each other to go fishing, thinking about each other between meetings, and even considering starting an outdoor recreation club for women. Seeing these connections build has made the project really fun and rewarding. These outcomes wouldn’t be possible if I had chosen another research method like a social survey that is completed by individuals in isolation. The next step in this project is to summarize my findings and prepare them for publication. I will also share my findings with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which is interested in learning more about this unique group of stakeholders.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

An invader's wishlist: Corey Krabbenhoft on her dissertation research

Hello again!

For those of you who missed my last blog posts, my name is Corey Krabbenhoft. I have been conducting research in Donna Kashian’s lab at Wayne State University for the last several years. I am excited to report I just successfully defended my dissertation for the degree of Ph.D.!

Since it has been a while since I posted here, I thought I’d provide an update on my research on round goby invasion in the Great Lakes. For more background on this project, you can view my previous blog post here.

One of the goals of this research was to identify site conditions which are common to areas where round goby has invaded tributaries to the Great Lakes. The idea here is that if we can identify site characteristics which are common to areas of invasion, we may be able to use this information to predict the impacts of invasion, or else predict where invasion might occur in the future. A better overall understanding of the process and outcomes of invasion can help streamline management efforts to make prevention and mitigation strategies more efficient and successful.

One question I had was whether invasion is more commonly found in areas where land has been developed for human use. For example, would an urban area be more likely invaded than a rural area? One way to look at this is to use land cover data. This information is freely available for the entire United States from the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium. Here they provide land cover data at a scale of 30 meters. For my own research, I used this information to identify the dominant land cover types for the watersheds in my study (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Land cover information for seven watersheds in the lower peninsula of Michigan. Clockwise from left: Muskegon, Ocqueoc, Au Sable, Rifle, Clinton, Rouge, and Stony Creek.

The watersheds in my study represent a wide variety of land use types. In the southeastern part of the state, most of the land cover is urban development because of the metro Detroit area. In the northern part of the state, there is a larger proportion of forested land cover. Land cover can be important in the structure and function of streams because it reflects many different mechanisms by which human activity can impact water quality (Figure 2). For example, agricultural development of a watershed can be associated with increased nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in streams from the runoff of fertilizers. Similarly, urban development is often associated with habitat loss in streams due to the need to stabilize banks and reroute stream channels.

Figure 2. Two sites which demonstrate the gradient in quality in this study. Above: The Au Sable River, one of the large, northern watersheds dominated by forested land cover. Below: Stony Creek, the southernmost watershed which is dominated by agricultural land use.

For my research, I investigated the association of these land use types with invasion success of round goby. In addition to land use types, I measured other variables which I hypothesized to be influential for invasion. For example, I looked at logistic constraints associated with invasion (how difficult it is for gobies to move into new areas), characteristics of native species at the site, the basic physical structure of the stream (depth, width, etc.), and the levels of pollutants.

My analysis resulted in six site characteristics that are associated with large round goby populations (Figure 3). Invasion year and distance to river mouth are logistic constraints to invasion which highlight the importance of geographical barriers and the time required to adequately invade a new area. The other four factors help identify what types of sites are most likely to host invasive populations of round goby. For example, round goby are less likely to inhabit a site with high native fish diversity, with mostly natural land cover, in a moderately sized stream, with low pollution levels. This finding is important as it demonstrates that areas impacted by human alteration of the landscape are more likely to host large populations of round goby. This suggests investment in restoration of streams and riparian areas may benefit ecosystem resistance to invasion in the future.

Figure 3. The site characteristics identified as important in round goby invasion and their relative contribution to round goby abundance.

While I continue to work on fine tuning this research, I am excited about these preliminary findings. I hope to identify site characteristics which can help predict potential invasions to increase management and prevention efficiency. This is a goal important to all residents of the Great Lakes region and something we should be invested in as stewards for ecosystem conservation. For more on what you can do to help prevention of aquatic invasive species, Michigan Sea Grant has some other great resources.

Thanks again to Michigan Sea Grant for supporting this study. If you have any questions or comments about this as I move forward with my research, feel free to contact me at ckrab@wayne.edu or on my Twitter page: @ckrabb.