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The New View from the Hill

Former U.S. Rep. Boehlert joins BU Washington Center

Former New York Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert is teaching at BU’s Washington Center. Photo courtesy of Sherwood Boehlert

When Sherwood Boehlert retired in December after 24 years on Capitol Hill, the former New York Republican congressman says, he “had no intention of buying a rocking chair.”

“I still wanted to be engaged in a meaningful way,” says Boehlert, 70. “And I can’t think of a better way to do that than by working with young people and trying to develop in them an appreciation for our system of government.”

This semester, Boehlert, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, became the second member of the U.S. House of Representatives to join the BU faculty as a visiting professor in the University’s Washington Center. The center gives students a chance to work for a semester in the Washington bureau of various national news organizations, reporting on Congress and studying political reporting. Boehlert is teaching the undergraduate American Institutions course, which covers the workings of Congress, the executive branch, and advocacy groups that affect the shaping of public policy in the United States. In 2003 former Congressman Toby Moffett, a Connecticut Democrat, taught the same course.  

Boehlert spoke with BU Today earlier this month about his years in Congress, the challenges of teaching, and life as a Yankee fan among Red Sox enthusiasts.

BU Today: Your bio notes that you set out “the three Es” (education, energy, and the environment) as policy priorities when you became chairman of the House Science Committee in 2001. In which of those three areas were you able to make the most progress?

Boehlert: That’s like asking a dad to assess the progress of three of his children. All advance in different ways, just as the agenda set out for the committee has gone forward individually and collectively. I look back on the totality of the transformation of a committee that was essentially viewed as the Space Committee, dealing with NASA — which it did from the beginning to the end — but that added immeasurably to so many other areas. In education, we added the Science and Math Partnership to the president’s signature domestic program, No Child Left Behind. On energy, we demanded and secured approval for greater attention to, and resources for, the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. And for the environment, we were in the forefront of discussions on such issues as global climate change and protecting the independence of scientific inquiry across the board.

What’s the most pressing science and technology issue facing America today?
How do we — policy makers — convince others to make the necessary investments in scientific research to successfully address the great challenges of the day? The best intentions are not enough, absent the resources necessary to demonstrate tangible support for those intentions. In short, putting our money where are mouths are. Investments in science lead to cures for ills, improved procedures to enhance our competitiveness, creative ways to foster peace, and a general improvement in the quality of life. To do all of the above, we have to significantly improve our performance in developing, nurturing, and expanding opportunities for our workforce.

What do you think of President Bush’s plans to return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars as a science priority for this country?
The president’s visions for space — returning to the moon and eventually going to Mars — capture our imagination and excite us, but I would suggest that the far more important aspects of NASA’s program have a greater impact on the most important planet in the universe — the one we live on, Earth. NASA has to avoid being viewed as a one-mission agency, particularly in view of the fact that manned space exploration (the vision thing) pales in comparison to the importance of earth science, space science, and aeronautics and yet is commanding a disproportionate share of the overall NASA budget.

What were some of the biggest changes in politics during the 24 years you were a congressman?

I came to Capitol Hill more than 42 years ago as a starry-eyed young staff member, was given 3 years off for good behavior when I was elected county executive back home, and have served for the past 24 years as a member of the House. The big changes? I have never seen a higher degree of partisanship nor a lower level of tolerance for the other guy’s point than exists today. That’s all negative and has to change. On the plus side is the high degree of professionalism that is so apparent in the personal and committee staffs. Another change, this one also not for good, is the inordinate emphasis on fundraising for the perpetual campaign. In so many instances, it’s fair to suggest that too many congresspeople are fundraisers first and lawmakers second. Somehow, to my way of thinking, things are out of whack.

How do you like teaching public policy, as opposed to crafting it?

Teaching is a most demanding endeavor, and I have gained additional appreciation for those in the profession. But, so too is the art of crafting public policy. Here too there is much to respect.

Do you miss the Hill?
I haven’t looked back for more than a nanosecond, and during those few fleeting moments I don’t regret my decision not to seek reelection. It was time.

What led you to this teaching post with Boston University’s Washington, D.C., program?
I was asked to consider the offer to teach in BU’s Washington program and in a moment of weakness, said yes. Candidly, it is a lot more challenging that I thought it would be. And time-consuming. But it also is a special opportunity to expand the horizons of some very bright, energetic young people. I never cease to be amazed at how much they already know, while also appreciating how much more they need to know about how things work in the real world beyond the textbook versions.

If you could give your students only one take-home lesson about public policy, what would it be?
There aren’t any right or wrong answers to public policy questions. There are preferred solutions to problems, and only through introspection, analysis, and accommodation are they found. Before tackling any thorny issue, a reality check is in order to first determine the basic facts that exist. Then people with the correct intentions are able to sort things out and bring order out of chaos.

Are you secretly trying to convert Boston University students into fans of your beloved New York Yankees?
No self-respecting BU student who is a Red Sox fan would ever consider anything a committed Yankee fan said as anything other than propaganda. Then again, a BU student who was enlightened enough to be a Yankee would most assuredly ignore any importuning from die-hard Red Sox fans. Have to admit this, though — Fenway is an absolutely great venue for a game.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu. Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.