7 March 2012

Ryan goes to Washington

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Last week I was in Washington, DC for the National Space Grant meeting. I got a lot of support from Space Grant: Michigan Space Grant provided the funds so that I could be a part of the 2006 Goddard NASA Academy (which was an awesome summer of space goodness), and the the New York Space Grant provided a fellowship to fund my second semester at Cornell, allowing me to start on research sooner.

Now that I have graduated, Yervant Terzian (the chair of NY Space Grant) invited me to come to the meeting and give a talk. That was pretty cool, but what really made me decide to attend the meeting was that he also invited me to join him and Erica Miles (the assistant director of NY Space Grant) in meeting with congressional staff on the Hill to lobby for Space Grant.

I am pretty interested in politics and I had always sort of wanted to talk to people on the hill about space-related issues, but I could never justify making a trip to DC. But here I had the perfect excuse! So of course I accepted the invitation, and last week I found myself touching down at Reagan National Airport, with a view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument out the window of the plane.

The next morning I put on a suit (a rare occurrence!) and met up with Yervant and Erica at breakfast. We ate in the conference room, while the director of the Space Grant association spoke to all of the people in the room about Space Grant’s budget and what our message should be on the hill. It was pretty simple: Space Grant suffered from a huge cut in Obama’s FY13 budget, even though Congress authorized its funding to continue at a higher level. Our job was to go talk to congress and ask them to keep the budget at the authorized level, and also to include language specifying how funds are to be divvied up among the states. (Without the language, NASA gets to do whatever it wants with the money, which causes tons of headaches and delays)

Once we had our marching orders, we took a taxi to the House office building, where we met up with Karen Loparco (Cornell’s lobbyist). Karen had our day all planned out, with up-to-the minute changes as various congressional staffers called her to cancel or confirm or reschedule. Without further ado, we hopped in the elevator and headed upstairs.

The call them the “Halls of Congress” for good reason. The halls in the congressional office buildings are huge, and each office is flanked by several flags (typically the US flag and the state flag) along with a plaque identifying the representative and their state.

The general template for our meetings was usually the same: we enter the office, the busy staff are wrapping up with someone else or aren’t quite available yet, and then they come out and we chat for a little while. Generally, Yervant would do most of the talking and Karen would add comments to make sure the talking points were hit. Right on cue, Erica would provide the staffer with a folder of information summarizing our points. Then, they would find an excuse for me to give a brief spiel about how space grant helped me.
The staffers were all polite and friendly, but it was clear that some of the House staff were not especially interested. Others were very nice though. We bumped into Rep. Buerkle just as she was leaving her office, and she did the politician thing and smiled and shook hands, but then her staffer Alisa Wolking  met up with us after a few minutes of waiting in the office, and she was very interested and had clearly done her research. She was very excited when I told her about my research and seemed genuinely to support our cause. Likewise, the Senate staffers were very attentive and supportive, and had clearly done their research.
It was amazing to see Karen interacting with all of these staffers: she knew many of them by name, and as we walked the halls between meetings she would bump into other people and have high-speed mini-meetings. It wasn’t quite West-Wing-level “walk-and-talk”, but it was close enough.
Overall, I think we got our message across, and it was very exciting to just be there on The Hill, a small part of the flurry of activity and meetings and negotiations that go on behind the scenes to make our country work. It’s hard not to feel kind of patriotic about the process when you’re allowed to just come in there and talk about issues that you care about to someone who can actually do something about it.
Thankfully, I got a bit of a reality check at lunch, where I learned that the cafeteria for the House uses cheap styrofoam plates and cups because the Republicans control the house, while the Senate uses recyclable and compostable materials because Democrats are in charge. That little piece of stupidity was a good reminder of how dysfunctional congress really is.  The individual staffers that we met were all very nice and I’m sure are there to do what they think is right, but in the end they work for politicians whose main concern is getting re-elected. As anyone who has been following my reactions to space politics in the last few years knows, I am deeply cynical when it comes to Congress and NASA, and the styrofoam plates in the cafeteria reminded me why.

I'm glad congress spends its time on specifying what type of disposable dishes to use in its cafeterias.

I know you are wondering, but no, I did not lobby for the Planetary Science budget to be increased. One of key aspects of meeting with people on the Hill is not to dilute your message. We were there for Space Grant, and it wouldn’t have helped anyone for me to say “Oh and also, we want our money for Mars!”. The staffers would have left the meetings with a negative view of both Space Grant and Planetary science. My plan instead is to write letters to all of the offices that I visited, mentioning by name the staffer that I met with, and politely arguing the case for the planetary budget. I’ll use templates such as this one from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences, but letters to congress are much more effective if they are personalized, and that is what I plan to do.
As the AAS newsletter says, “the president proposes and Congress disposes”. The budget request is just a request, and I think congress will see that their voters do not want to see the planetary budget slashed. I plan to make that clear to them, and I hope you will too.
(Note: I should make it clear that when I talked to people on the Hill, I was there as a student who had benefitted from a program, NOT as a government employee. Likewise, nothing posted on this blog represents the USGS or DOI: all opinions are my own.)