Boehlert Reflects on 25 Years of Bipartisanship

Spotlight on former House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

Jul 02, 2007

Sherwood Boehlert worked tirelessly in Congress for 12 terms as a Republican representative from upstate New York. Greatly respected for his bipartisan, conciliatory efforts and impressive environmental record, Boehlert voluntarily retired from government last December.

In January, Boehlert began a six-month residency as a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, where he was writing a book reflecting on a quarter-century in Congress. He started out as a congressional staffer 43 years ago and was first elected to Congress in 1982. He then would serve on four committees during his career, sometimes concurrently.

Boehlert served on the House Committee on Science and Technology all 24 years, and chaired it for the last six years. He spent 22 years on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and chaired its Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. In addition, he spent eight years on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and was appointed to the Committee on Homeland Security, newly created after the 9/11 attacks.

Reflecting from an institutional perspective, Boehlert expressed frustration that his party rose to the majority then foundered. He viewed the last congressional election not as a Democratic win, but as a Republican loss.

He said, "My book will examine where things in this great institution went awry, which enabled the long-suffering [Republican] minority to get to the majority, and where continued deviation from the norm resulted in a new majority reverting back to minority status."

On his committees, congressmen and staffers successfully pushed through critical legislation, which he attributed to bipartisan consensus. "If we sent legislation to a forensics lab, you'd find Democratic and Republic fingerprints all over it," he said. "We found common ground and we'd go forward. I'm convinced the American people are not that partisan; the vast majority are more centrist in their thinking."

Boehlert, in fact, is considered a moderate Republican, progressive on social issues, particularly the environment. "We New York Republicans are of a different breed," he said. "I'm an unabashed environmentalist."

A champion of environmental rights in Congress, Boehlert consistently defended legislation to keep our air and water clean. In 1990, for example, the Clean Air Act of 1990 contained a section he wrote on combating acid rain. "Water is the 21st-century version of oil in the last century," he said. "It's a commodity we take for granted."

He recalled long ago meeting an innovative leader and environmentalist, then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who inspired him. Boehlert never strayed from his own green vision which is, simply, "We have an obligation to protect and enhance the environment."

Boehlert admitted, "I'm not a scientist, but without the scientific background, I asked the obvious questions." He boasted that the Science Committee earned the scientific community's respect, as they collaborated on policy, most recently on nanotechnology legislation.

"Over the next decade, we should concentrate on meeting the unmet requirements of a growing, prosperous nation," he said, "particularly in economic development and human health."

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