The Oil Men
Don't underestimate staffers.
Five towering men filed into our conference room on the seventh floor of the Hart Senate office building.
“Hello little lady,” one lightheartedly greeted me, glancing back at the door as if waiting for someone to join us.
“It’s so nice to meet you all,” I began, handing out my business cards. “Tell me what brings you here today.”
The group shifted in their seats, suddenly restless, or perhaps mildly irritated. I guessed they expected to speak directly with a U.S. senator rather than the 25-year-old woman sitting across from them.
“Should we wait for your boss?” asked the man at the head of the table. “Or one of the top dogs around here?”
“You’re on my calendar today,” I explained. “How can I help you?”
The disappointment in the room was palpable, but I pretended not to notice. Maybe they assumed I was an intern or staff assistant. I smiled warmly as I always did with lobbyists and constituents, waiting for them to begin.
After a few minutes of awkward small talk, the men described oceans and energy to me with the intonation you might use with a child. I continued nodding back, noticing they seemed completely unaware or uncaring of their condescension. In oversimplified terms, they explained that they wanted to expand offshore drilling of Florida’s coast, assuring me that their plans would be fine for Florida’s manatees and fish, and very lucrative for their industry.
The thing is, these men never figured out they were speaking with a marine biologist about oceans. Instead, they repeatedly interrupted or alternatively ignored me, despite that, at least in theory, I was their intended audience.
Later I learned that colleagues in other offices had similar experiences meeting the same lobbyists as they made the rounds. We talked to each other about such things you see.
Maybe they didn’t realize how staffers – even “little ladies” like me - inform members of Congress about meetings and make recommendations for how they might vote. The group couldn’t know that their open disdain led me to write down notes about the encounter that evening because I wanted to remember how they made me feel.
A few months later, the late Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico introduced “The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006” (S.3711). The bill, which was signed into law before the end of that year, included the prohibition of oil and gas leasing off of Florida’s coast.
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When bills become laws, we acknowledge individual members of Congress, but every victory is also the result of an army of committed staffers working together across Capitol Hill and having conversations behind closed doors to get things done. When lobbyists underestimate their value and treat them disrespectfully, they may also undermine their own goals.
While I suspect the men I met with all those years ago forgot about our encounter shortly after saying goodbye, it left such a lasting impression on me that I would go on to focus many years of my career in energy policy*, and ultimately, begin new research on the roles, influence, and power of Congressional staffers. Research that I will continue sharing here**.
* Working in energy, I was fortunate to collaborate with and befriend many smart, thoughtful individuals focused on oil, gas, renewables, storage and more. This anecdote is not intended to criticize the energy industry, but rather illustrate that when it comes to lobbying, the Golden Rule still applies.
** Thank you for reading and subscribing to my substack. Please spread the word by sharing with friends interested in the intersections of science, politics and decision making in Congress.