At Batten, Congressman Opines on Biggest Upcoming Public Policy Challenges

Speaking Monday to a public policy class at the University of Virginia, U.S. Rep. Gerald E. ‘Gerry’ Connolly (D-Va.) shared some leadership insights and predicted that climate change, cyber security and global demographic shifts will pose the biggest public policy challenges 30 years from now.

Connolly offered a caveat: If he had been asked in 1983 to predict the biggest political developments of the next 30 years, he would have failed the assignment, he told more than 100 students.

He would not have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union; German reunification; the end of apartheid in South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s leadership; the mapping of the human genome and its profound impact on medicine; the rapid rise of public support for gay marriage; or the huge impact of technological developments, from the rise of the personal computer to mobile phones, the Internet and the global positioning system.

Connolly is currently serving his third term representing Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, which includes most of Fairfax County, the city of Fairfax and part of eastern Prince William County. He spoke in Clark Hall to a class on “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century,” led by Gerald Warburg, professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Connolly’s daughter Caitlin is a graduate student in the Batten School’s accelerated bachelor's/master's in public policy program.

Before answering student questions for the majority of the class period, Connolly gave a brief overview of why climate change, demographics and cyber security will remain major public policy challenges for decades to come.

Connolly noted that world population has nearly tripled in his lifetime, rapid growth that some expected would lead to famine, poverty and warfare. In reality, the world produces enough food to feed everyone, he said, but distribution is the problem. More people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 50 years than at any other time in human history, he said.

In the developed nations of the West, shrinking population is the big demographic challenge. This is a much bigger challenge in Europe than in the United States, because America has historically benefited from an influx of immigrants, he said.

“Demographics will have impacts on every aspect of our lives,” he said.

We are already seeing significant effects of climate change, Connolly said. A fairly modest rise in sea level, magnified by storm surges, will have a catastrophic impact on coastal areas – where the majority of all humans live. For instance, much of coastal Florida could be submerged, he said.

The question is how much sea level will rise, he said. If Greenland’s ice sheet melts, sea level could rise several feet. Humanity has tackled global environmental problems in the past, including the hole in the ozone and acid rain, so stopping climate change “is not beyond us, but we fear a tipping point where it does get beyond us” and can’t be reversed, he said.

Cyber security challenges are already cropping up on a staggering scale, Connolly said, citing two statistics. Last year, Bank of America faced 122 million cyber attacks, some of which could move money or even bankrupt the bank. Four years ago, the IRS reported 87,000 cyber attacks; four years later, that number had risen to 1.4 million.

“The bad guys caught on to where the money is,” Connolly said. And only four people have been prosecuted thus far.

Major shifts in policy usually require a galvanizing event, Connolly said. For instance, the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that killed more than 140 garment workers precipitated major worker safety reforms, and the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn. prompted the current public conversation about “modest reforms” related to gun safety. But such an event is not always required, and public opinion can shift quickly, as it has in recent years regarding immigration reform and gay marriage.

Responding to a general question about how best to affect policy change, Connolly said that leaders should be willing to use all tools at their disposal to pursue their agenda.

“When you have power, the biggest sin is not using it,” he said. “Don’t abuse it. Use it wisely. Try to use it in a way that includes people, not excludes people. But to shy away from the use of power when you worked to get it, is, to me, a hanging offense, because you only have it for a brief window.”

As an example, Connolly pointed to the 2012 film “Lincoln” and its “accurate portrayal” of how Abraham Lincoln used every means at his disposal to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the brief window of opportunity he had before the readmission of the Southern states to the Union. “He used every trick of the trade for a noble cause, and thank God he did,” Connolly said.

Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt employed obscure executive powers to create the national park system when he was unable to gain Congressional approval.

Connolly also shared a couple of his personal rules gleaned from his many years in politics. “To thine own self be true,” he said, and “pick your fights with care. But when you have one, have the intestinal fortitude to pursue it.”

The “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century” course is a new offering, a “gateway class” organized around policy issues and designed to appeal to a broad swath of students outside the Batten School, Warburg said. The class enrollment of 117 students – a third from Batten, two-thirds from five other U.Va. schools – far exceeded initial plans for 50 to 80 students, forcing a move to a larger classroom.

Connolly was the latest in a series of visiting leaders that Warburg’s students were able to spend class time with, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and one of his predecessors, Madeleine Albright; Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell: U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.); and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.

In introducing Connolly, Warburg noted they worked together as Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers from 1979 to 1989, a time when the committee was the most venerated in Congress and the forum for national debates on the Vietnam War and America’s post-World War II role. Almost half of the committee members eventually ran for president, and several committee staff members went on to be elected to public office, including Connolly and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

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