30 April 2014

Congressional Visits Day from an Undergraduate Perspective

Anna Ho Cornell

This guest post comes from Anna Ho, currently an undergraduate at MIT, headed next to Heidelberg as a Fulbright Scholar and then on to Caltech for graduate school. Anna was the only undergraduate student participant from the AAS in 2014 Congressional Visits Day. This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the MIT Admissions Blog.

— Joshua H. Shiode, John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow

* * *

My name is Anna Ho, and I am a student at...

No, no. That’s not the point.

My name is Anna Ho, and I am a constituent living in Cambridge. I am a student at MIT majoring in physics.

Ugh, I sound like a robot. Sound cheerful! BE cheerful! IT’S SO EXCITING TO BE HERE!

Hi! Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us. My name is Anna Ho, and I’m a constituent living in Cambridge. I’m a senior at MIT majoring in physics, but today I’m here representing the American Astronomical Society.

…and I’m very nervous, because I’m an idealistic 21-year-old who would really like to think that it’s better to Engage than it is to Criticize from Afar, and somehow I find myself here in DC to meet with my representatives. I’ve heard that people charge into policy work feeling like they’re going to change the world, and soon become disenchanted and frustrated. And I’m afraid that on Congressional Visits Day, I will find out that all of these “meetings” with my representatives are just formalities to win my vote.

Our training begins on Monday, March 24. Around 10 of us have arrived in DC already, and we start by going around the room and introducing ourselves. The guy to my left works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, building cameras for telescopes. The woman to my right does research on the Sun at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. There’s a professor from Northwestern somewhere behind me. There are a handful of graduate students, and I’m the token undergraduate.

The first speaker is Josh Shiode. Josh has a PhD in astronomy from UC Berkeley and is now the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the AAS. Translation: he brought his scientific training and communication talents with him to the policy world of Washington, DC. He communicates in two directions: he advocates on behalf of the astronomy community to policymakers, and he keeps the astronomy community informed about important changes in policy. This week his job is to prepare a delegation of 15 AAS members to lobby on Capitol Hill. This Monday afternoon, his talk is called “Congress in Context.” I frantically take notes, trying to go from Zero Knowledge to Enough Knowledge.

Congress in Context: Josh walks us through how a bill becomes a law (the takeaway: very few do) and introduces us to important vocabulary. The deficit, for example. Non-defense discretionary spending (“our stuff!”) and the nature of its shrinking. The Budget Control Act, the Bipartisan Budget Act, high spending on mandatory programs, the difference between authorizations and appropriations (the theory and the reality), examples of authorizing committees, examples of appropriating committees.

Current status: the President’s Budget Request — which proposes spending levels for each agency — is out. Now Congress is working on actually allocating funding (“appropriations”), in theory within the authorized bounds. There are many organizations lobbying on Capitol Hill for a piece of nondefense discretionary pie, and we are one of them.

No pressure.

After a short coffee break (astronomers have caffeine running through their veins) we reconvene for a talk by Anna Quider, who works at the US State Department. Anna is another PhD astronomer who decided to dedicate her life to policy, and her job this afternoon is to introduce us to our audience.

Our audience: congressional staff. Before you walk into the House or the Senate, she says, you need to understand who these people are. Each member of Congress has a group of congressional staff (“staffers”) who distill and relay information to the congressperson about particular issues, to help him or her cast an informed vote.

This sounds like an enormous responsibility, so I am astonished to learn that some staffers are not a whole lot older than I am. “For many staffers,” Anna tells us, “this is their FIRST JOB EVER.” They’re smart 20- or 30-something-year-olds, expected to become experts in a wide variety of areas often outside their educational background. When Anna Quider was a staffer, her portfolio included education, small business and entrepreneurship, national security, innovation, and all of science and technology. When the staffer in charge of healthcare issues left, Anna was given that job, and told, “Well, science is the next closest thing.” 

To help staffers, there is a nonpartisan knowledge tank on Capitol Hill called the Congressional Research Service. But even with this resource, consider what the job entails: teaching yourself about a vast range of complicated and important issues that you have limited (or no) academic experience with, picking out the salient points, then relaying information up the chain to a member of Congress. With this in mind, Anna shows us a typical staffer schedule: it is packed from 8 am until 9 pm, with no obvious breaks. 

“The fact that [the staffer you contacted] took your meeting request is a small miracle,” Anna said. “You have a foot in the door. These are a PRECIOUS TWENTY MINUTES.” She mentions that our 30-minute scheduled meeting might end up lasting two minutes and be held standing in a hallway, or even turn out to include a bunch of other scientists from other organizations.

Thanks to Anna, I have a mental image of the very hard-working but very busy person I will be meeting with on Wednesday. Obviously I can’t waste this person’s time. What is special about me? What information can I uniquely deliver?

The last session on Monday is led by Jen Greenamoyer, a senior government relations liaison at the American Institute of Physics. With her, we will finally begin to hammer out what exactly to say during our meetings. The talk is titled “Delivering Your Message on Capitol Hill,” and I take away five key points:

  1. Believe it or not, scientists are held in high esteem by policymakers because we have the reputation of being credible. That’s part of why you were able to get this precious meeting time. So: BE CREDIBLE. Talk about what you know, and admit if you don’t know something.
  2. Know as much as you can about the member of Congress and the staffer. Research the individuals in advance, learn about their priorities and interests, look around the office while you wait for the meeting, and ask the staffer about him or herself. Tailor your message accordingly.
  3. Be clear and specific about what you are asking for, and ground your conversation and requests in geography and local impact. Remember: Congress is pegged to DISTRICTS. And don’t suggest that science funding should be an entitlement.
  4. Politicians speak in anecdote. Be a memorable anecdote and convey your dedication to your research. Back-and-forth exchanges are much more memorable than one-way spiels.
  5. Offer to serve as a resource in the future.

Heads swimming, we break into groups for a role-play activity. I become Jason Ellis, lobbyist for an organization called Save Our Coastal Resources (SOCR). The Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer to my left becomes Congresswoman Katherine Greer, a Republican from Oregon who is currently undecided about how to vote on a bill. The Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer to my right becomes Allison Lowder, a lobbyist for the US Shrimpers Association.

We each have something like 5 minutes to skim a briefing on the bill, then hold a “meeting” with the congresswoman trying to persuade her to vote one way or the other. Allison Lowder holds her meeting while I run out to the bathroom, and I come back pumped to argue on behalf of SOCR. “The sawfish will become extinct if no steps are taken to protect it,” I say. “All life on our planet is connected and dependent on each other, and there is serious threat to this species….” At the end, I feel pretty good about my spiel. But Congresswoman Lowder votes “no,” and Allison Lowder cheers. What did I do wrong?! As we switch groups, Congresswoman Katherine Greer turns to me and says, “You know why I voted no?” Grumpily, I ask why. “Because she“ — she points to Lowder — "went first.”

That night, in front of the mirror:

My name is Anna Ho, and I’m a constituent living in Cambridge. I’m a senior at MIT majoring in physics, but today I’m here representing the American Astronomical Society. In the fall, I’m going to start a PhD program in astronomy.

Here is my contact information. If I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

On Monday the talks were about science advocacy in general; today, the focus is on astronomy. It’s Tuesday, all 15 of us are finally here, and we’re sitting in a conference room at AAS headquarters. At 9 am, Executive Officer Kevin Marvel gives us a warm welcome before leaving to “go sign checks or something” (he makes us laugh at 9 am, which is no mean feat).

For the next three hours, the AAS Director of Public Policy, Joel Parriott, joins forces with Josh to bring us up to speed. They review terminology from yesterday, this time highlighting particular authorization bills that directly affect our field. They fill us in on current astronomy policy issues, most of which involve the National Science Foundation. Themes from yesterday resurface: your primary currency is your credibility, if you prove to be a useful resource people will come back to you, your face and your personal story alone are worth the visit.

I take notes as usual but am a little distracted by the thought that whoa, the AAS Director of Public Policy is sitting next to me. I snap out of my reverie when someone down the table asks what to do if we’re asked about the NSF Portfolio Review. Asked about the what?! The response is that if we get asked about the NSF Portfolio Review, we are to go out and have a beer to celebrate that someone up on Capitol Hill actually knows what the NSF is. If we get tough but informed questions, that’s a reason to celebrate.

At this point, the Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville chimes in to remind us that our job is to promote our field, not to bash other fields or other organizations. “I don’t think it ever benefits anybody,” he says, “to speak from the perspective of negativity.” Much more effective to present a united front, instead of bickering amongst ourselves while the politicians go deal with other issues.

After lunch, we travel to the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). We sit through a series of talks. The highlight is a Q&A with staffers: Sean Gallagher from Congressman Rush Holt’s office is particularly enthusiastic and articulate. “We’re a filter for our boss,” he tells us, “but we tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. You are our educators.” Takeaways include:

  1. People are on a one-year cycle. Really long-term arguments are not the way to go.
  2. Legislative staff often consider themselves researchers. Be a resource. If you would like to be called on, establish a relationship with your member of Congress.
  3. Don’t get into the weeds about your research unless the staffer specifically asks you.
  4. Prepare for 2-, 5-, 15-, and 30-minute versions of your meeting.
  5. ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL. Tie the importance of your work to your local district.
  6. Make it a two-way conversation.

Suddenly, I realize what information I can uniquely provide during my meetings. I pull out my notebook to scribble down the first draft of my message.

It’s Tuesday night and I’m lying on my stomach in my hotel room bed.

Tomorrow morning I will lead meetings with staffers from two Massachusetts offices: Representative Michael Capuano’s office and Senator Ed Markey’s office. I’m frantically reviewing.

Michael Capuano. Very passionate about higher education. Makes sense, considering that the 7th congressional district has over a dozen research institutes, universities (including MIT and Harvard) and teaching hospitals. One-fifth of Nobel Prize winners have lived, studied, or worked in this district. Capuano has a lot to be proud of.

Capuano’s staffer: Andrew Eaton. BA in political science from U. Conn. Portfolio includes budget, tax, social security, education, science, welfare, US Postal Service.

Ed Markey. Already supportive of expanding investment in science research programs. This meeting can probably be short.

Markey’s staffer: Dan Pomeroy. PhD in high-energy experimental physics, has worked at the Large Hadron Collider. This meeting can definitely be short.

My name is Anna Ho, and I’m a constituent living in Cambridge. I’m a senior at MIT majoring in physics, but today I’m here representing the American Astronomical Society. In the fall, I’m going to start a PhD program in astronomy, but when I started college I didn’t think that I was cut out to be a research scientist. The summer after my sophomore year, I did an internship funded by the National Science Foundation. I loved it so much that I went back the next summer and did it again. I learned that I wanted to do research because I had the opportunity to try doing research. And I had that opportunity because of this program. I became a scientist because of this program.

I set my alarm for 6 am and dream about sleeping through meetings.