On This Episode
Vice President for Corporate Strategy at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and former senior staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee
Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
For over a decade, Jean Toal Eisen drafted legislation directing billions of dollars to NASA as senior staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She joins the show to unveil the crucial roles played by committee staff like herself, how decisions and priorities are made behind closed doors, and the motivations and drivers of the people who control the fates of billions of dollars of taxpayer funding for the U.S. space program.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Welcome everyone to our monthly Space Policy Edition at Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed, the host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society, and I'm joined by Casey Dreier, our Chief of Space Policy, who's currently in Vienna, Austria at the Planetary Defense Conference. How's your trip going so far, Casey?
Casey Dreier: Oh, it's wonderful. I'm having such a great time. I gave a talk just the other day about funding history and trends in planetary defense, obviously one of my favorite preferred topics. Went over really well. Had some really great conversations with attendees, representatives from NASA, representatives from the White House. And I posted this into our member community. Plug for the member community, by the way. I shared the talk that I gave, the paper that I wrote for this conference, and wanted to thank the members of The Planetary Society for enabling me to participate in events like this and get the ward out and really make these unique contributions to these broader communities, the ones that we really, really care about, like planetary defense, one of our three core issues. So it's been just a pleasure and an honor, frankly, to be here representing The Planetary Society.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That sounds like such an adventure and an event that I've always wanted to go to because any moment that you're really thinking about planetary defense, it's always very meaningful, but a scenario where you're faking an asteroid hitting Earth and trying to deflect it, that just sounds like a really fun game.
Casey Dreier: Yes, that's a good way to put it. Let's call it fun. It's fascinating for sure. And what's amazing this year is obviously this is the first Planetary Defense Conference... And actually, note The Planetary Society is a co-sponsor of this event every two years. This is the first Planetary Defense Conference where we've had data from a planetary defense mission to talk about. We had DART happen in between the last Planetary Defense conference and now, when DART happened. And so it's just a totally different ballgame and seeing the discussion of the data, all this new insight, and then also all of this discussion and excitement about what's happening next, these new missions. DART is not just a one-off event, it's the start of an era of planetary defense, and you really feel that. Not just at NASA, but at the European Space Agency, we had representatives from Japan and China and Brazil and New Zealand talking all about their planetary defense contributions globally, and it was just like, "Hey, humanity's all right." It was a feel-good experience.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be sharing a lot more about your adventures and Mat Kaplan's adventures at PDC in an upcoming episode of Planetary Radio. But who do we have on our show today, Casey?
Casey Dreier: Today's guest I'm very excited about. Her name is Jean Toal Eisen. Right now, she's the Vice President for Corporate Strategy at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, AURA, which, actually, our vice president, Heidi Hammel, works at. But prior to that, Jean Toal Eisen worked in the Senate Committee staff for Appropriations for nearly a decade. She was one of the key individuals writing the congressional Appropriations Bills that funded NASA for years. And she's going to talk about this unique role that she occupied, how congressional staff intersect with congressional representatives, and how the whole process happens about taking a president's budget request from a concept to actually writing the legislation that funds agencies like NASA. She's great. She's very intelligent, very experienced, very insightful discussion, really excited to have her on the show today.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm looking forward to hearing it, especially right after our most recent presidential budget request and all of the things that came out of that. It'd be great to know more about that process.
Casey Dreier: It's very timely, not an accident. Very, very timely to see because, I mean, what we'll talk about is basically what's happening. She no longer does it, but it's basically what's happening as we talk in the halls and offices of Congress.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Speaking of Congress, we're also fast approaching one of our biggest advocacy events of the year, which is our Planetary Society digital Day of Action. When's that coming up, Casey?
Casey Dreier: So we're doing two Days of Action this year. We're doing a digital one, as you said, on April 18th, and then we'll be doing our next in-person Welcome Back Day of Action in September that we will be posting about by the time you hear this episode. The digital Day of Action, though, that's coming right up, and we hope everybody who's able to participate can. We're going to have special talks by me, by my new colleague, Jack Kiraly, our DC representative. We're going to have special talks from people on the VERITAS mission to talk about what that mission could be doing at Venus if we get it saved. And we're going to have lots of opportunities for you to take direct action, either writing or making phone calls to Congress from the comfort of your own home, because it's a digital Day of Action, just to get your appetite wetted and excited for our in-person Day of Action come September. But it's something we can do now. It's very timely. Now is a great time to be contacting your member of Congress about NASA's budget and key missions like saving VERITAS. And we'll be doing it together through, again, our new member community, which by the way, Sarah, how wonderful has it been?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've been having the best time. I spent two years helping to work on this project, and now every morning I wake up and the first thing I do is check this member community to see all the beautiful images and all the wonderful messages that people have sent me. It's making my days so much nicer.
Casey Dreier: It's so fun, and I'm having a great time putting up polls, posting things to the space policy and budgets section. And now we have these new rocket launch watching event sessions coming out. So it's just a great place to be and we'll be doing the Day of Action together in that community. So it's a great plug. You're not a member yet of The Planetary Society, maybe you consider being a member at this point and being part of this Day of Action with us.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Being a Planetary Society member has always been really meaningful, but now we actually have a place where we can connect and do things like the digital Day of Action together. So if anybody wants to learn more about this, you can go to community.planetary.org to see how you can get into this member community because it's a great time. And the Day of Action is a great moment for people in the United States who want to help shape the future of space exploration. But anyone, no matter where you live, anywhere on this beautiful planet, you can help in our efforts by making a gift to our advocacy program. And we're actually right in the middle of our spring advocacy appeal.
Casey Dreier: Indeed, we are. And this is where, as a nonprofit, we really depend, literally depend on members and anyone who wants to make a donation. And again, yes, you can be anywhere in the world, make a donation to this effort that helps me and Jack have the ability for things like here right now, me at the Planetary Defense Conference in Vienna, presenting original research, making new contributions on behalf of The Planetary Society to the community to encourage people to think about how we can get more efforts and resources devoted to planetary defense, that we're doing this big effort right now to save the VERITAS mission. My colleague Jack has gone out to over a hundred congressional offices just to talk about VERITAS. He's been bringing members of the team, he's been getting the word out. That's the kind of stuff we can do when we have, in a sense, the resources to do it. And this is the time, we do this once a year, we ask for your help to keep this program afloat and funded, which I am grateful for over and over again. And if you want to make a contribution, if you want to help us out, it's at planetary.org/takeaction, one word, and that will give you an opportunity to throw us a few bucks and help keep this program going.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: You can also help by becoming a Planetary Society member if you want to. You can go to planetary.org/join. And I cannot say enough how much we appreciate it and how many amazing things come out of this space advocacy program. We're actually very effective at this, and I think there's a good chance we might actually help save VERITAS.
Casey Dreier: We're working on it. We've had very good response so far. And again, it's one of those aspects. This is what we're here for, The Planetary Society. One of the reasons we exist is because Carl Sagan and Lou Friedman and Bruce Murray realized at the late 1970s, early 1980s that there was a lot of public support out there for planetary exploration, but that didn't necessarily directly translate to political support. And one of the key founding motivations of The Planetary Society is to be that glue or that representation, the public's voice in this effort, in the political system, where at the end of the day, it's a representative democracy, but it's a participatory democracy. And if we're there participating on your behalf and helping you participate, finding ways for you to help. If we don't do it, no one will. And this is why, again, we're here for missions like VERITAS, for missions like Mars Sample Return, for missions like NEO Surveyor, which we successfully helped save last year. This isn't just... Not making this up. We have a record of this. This is why we do this, and this is literally why I get up every day to work at The Planetary Society, what drew me here in the first place. And it's a special and unique role that our organization plays in this sphere because as much as we love this, Sarah, you and I don't get any money from the fact that VERITAS gets restored or something like that. The fact that NEO Surveyor is happening doesn't mean we have this big fat government contract as a result. We are not self-interested players in this beyond our basic soul-stirring experience of seeing new images of the cosmos come our way. And that is a very rare role to play in the system when we're not self-interested, just there for the good of the... We fundamentally believe that this is an important thing to do, and so we're going to spend our time trying to make it happen.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well said. All right, Casey, let's turn to your interview with Jean Toal Eisen to hear more about this.
Casey Dreier: Jean Toal Eisen, thank you for joining me on the Space Policy Edition.
Jean Toal Eisen: Thanks for having me.
Casey Dreier: Before we really get into the process of your role in the Committee staff on Appropriations in the Senate, I noticed in your background that you have a degree in both mathematics and philosophy, and I thought that was perhaps the most appropriate set of skills to be trained in to work in congressional staff for Appropriations. Is that true? Your math background and philosophy, how did that help you approach your career in terms of serving a congressional committee needs?
Jean Toal Eisen: I actually always used to say the same thing. The intersection of math and philosophy is appropriations, but the actual academic intersection is logical theory and decision making. So I guess that also helps with the big overarching policy things, as well as the little things. And it doesn't hurt to be able to add if you are going to try to make sure that your Appropriations Bill balances. So...
Casey Dreier: Yeah, I imagine in particular having a strong grounding in philosophy and various ways of thinking about the human condition may have actually been very helpful in terms of your mental health throughout the last 20 years, perhaps in that situation. Is that true at all in terms of how to engage with a larger system of people acting very humanly, let's say?
Jean Toal Eisen: Yes, it does. It does give you a little bit of zen, make you a little bit more resilient. It also is a good thing to talk about. I remember interviewing with Senator Mikulski and going into the broad theory of our human condition and where we are on the planet and where we are in our evolution as a human. And it gives you a framework to think about life on other planets too.
Casey Dreier: Right. I imagine a lot of our listeners have not thought much about the day-to-day process of creating appropriations. And I'm sure even beyond that of our listeners in the mass public, the concept of the staff aspect and of putting together appropriations on this annual cycle probably doesn't rise to the consciousness much, but it's such a critical part of how this comes together. And even hearing you now mention the fact that you're talking with your boss at the time, Barbara Mikulski, Senator from Maryland, about what's the human condition, I imagine things about what good can we do in these roles? That's actually a very hopeful and optimistic representation of the type of people that fill these roles. I think it's easy for a lot of people to just assume a very cynical position about the process of political deal-making and even through appropriations, but it sounds like maybe there's more to it than that. What's driving people like you who wanted to become part of this was probably a deeper commitment to some bigger ideal.
Jean Toal Eisen: You don't stay in these roles unless you think that you're doing some kind of good, and I think that's broadly applicable to public service, whether you're a weather forecaster or an appropriator. You have to think that I may not know the people who this decision affects, but it affects real people and I'm going to try to make these decisions and give advice on making these decisions to better people's lives. That's, to me, the essence of public service and the essence of why we do the things we do, and when we are trying to talk about how great the work we have done is, we are constantly reminded, what does it do for real people? How can you quantify this for people? It's easy to do with weather forecasting and harder to do with the James Webb Space Telescope, but that's where thinking about the human condition helps you.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, so maybe some inherent value of knowledge as an instinctive good. Let's define what you did. And so you had a number of roles over, I think, nearly two decades of public service in the US Senate. The last 12 years roughly, right?
Jean Toal Eisen: Yes.
Casey Dreier: Since 2010, you worked as a Staff Director/Clerk in the Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee staff. Why don't we just start with that? Describe what it means to be staff on a Subcommittee of Appropriations and the process that you're trying to usher through every year and your role in that process.
Jean Toal Eisen: So if you back way up, the Constitution says that no money shall be drawn except by Congress saying it can be drawn from the Treasury. And so the Appropriations Committee is really an artifact of the Constitution. It is how we draw that money from the purse. Backing up, our end goal is to make sure that the things we are responsible for funding are responsibly funded and overseen for the coming year. As much as senators and representatives have on their plate, while they may sit down and write a piece of report language, a piece of bill language, they have too many responsibilities to do that and cross every T and dot every I. So what the role of staff really is, is to advise, consult and execute the vision of senators and representatives, to make sure that the policies that they would like to see enacted are put into the legislation. That word clerk is kind of funny because you think of a grocery store clerk or somebody with green eyeshades and it's a little bit of both. Yes, there is a big policy responsibility and advice and recommendations on the decisions for funding, but there's also a very technical aspect of making sure that when we think we're spending $10, CBO agrees, and OMB can actually get that money to the agency, and the agency can execute on those $10 or 10 million dollars. So it's all of that rolled into one. It is the very technical aspects. It is looking at the last draft of something and saying, "You know what? We misspelled complimentary." And we mean things that compliment each other, not, "Hey, you got on a great dress." So it's all of that.
Casey Dreier: Basically, are you in a sense the institutional knowledge to a degree, and technical knowledge of the appropriations process?
Jean Toal Eisen: I would say that. And then, because we also end up being a lot of the institutional knowledge about how the agencies work, how an agency can execute funding, what are the right words you need to put in? So while our primary responsibility is the Appropriations Bills, we also get called on by other committees or when we have one of these big all-of-the-Senate bills to say in a technical way, but also in a policy way, how can this money get spent and what is the best place to put it to accomplish the goal that we have?
Casey Dreier: I'm already hearing more nuance to this than even I tend to think about, which is the way you're defining this, it's not like you're just this conduit for money to go out the door. I'm hearing a very strong oversight and responsibility role as well, that it's being spent responsibly, that what you're giving is able to be spent, that it's conducive or copacetic with what other agencies are expecting and ready to receive. Is that a correct way to characterize this?
Jean Toal Eisen: That's a very correct way to characterize it. I think if you talk to Appropriation staff and senators and representatives who are on the Appropriations Committee, they don't just see themselves as spenders. They see themselves as stewards of the public money. Because you are making decisions about where it goes, you also want to make sure that those decisions have a grounding in policy and that the agencies do what you thought they were going to do with the money.
Casey Dreier: I imagine that's always an interesting ongoing discussion. We'll get to that though, because I still want to focus on this initial process and the role. Is it true that the staff then functionally write the vast majority of the legislation itself? And so you have to, as staff, your job is to responsibly communicate with the senators, in your case on the Senate side, to understand what their needs and expectations are, and then you translate that into legislative text and language? And also, in a way, I imagine there's probably a number of legal requirements that you have to be adherent to in terms of how you write these as well. Is that an accurate way to describe this as well?
Jean Toal Eisen: I think it is, and I think something that often gets lost is certainly you're listening to your bosses and your bosses have the final decision, but they get input from nearly every member of the Senate. If people have heard of the appropriations request process, it is both a joy and the bane of many in LA's existence to have to input all of the things that Senator A wants from Appropriations Bill B into the big database that is used. The defense committees use a similar process to take input. And so it's not just what does Jeanne Shaheen think ought to be in here, but she's gotten input from every member of the Senate to say, "Hey, I'm interested in this piece of your bill," whether it is spectrum policy or NSF research on food or what have you. And those requests are beyond the requests for earmarks, I'm sorry, congressionally directed spending.
Casey Dreier: It's the proper term now.
Jean Toal Eisen: I'm contractually obligated to say that for the rest of my life, I think. The bills aren't written in a vacuum. And one of the inputs and one of the most important inputs is what do all of your colleagues want to see these government agencies doing and how responsibly can we make sure that we are listening to their voices and also making sure that the agencies work the way we think they do. You don't want to do something that ties the hands of an FBI agent when they need to be investigating a crime. And so you want to enable the missions of these important agencies, but also enable the input of every senator.
Casey Dreier: Do you feel, as staff, does staff have a responsibility themselves that is ever independent from the representatives or the legislators? Or are staff designed to serve the... Maybe whims is too pejorative of a term, but I think you hear what I'm saying.
Jean Toal Eisen: Staff are designed to serve their members and the body, but one of the ways of being a responsible staffer, whether you're a committee staffer or working in the personal office, is to alert your bosses to issues and to say, "This is not right and we could fix it," or "This is right and it is something that this government ought to do more of, and therefore I am recommending to you that we increase funding for this thing." No senator may know how the staffing of this particular bureau of the Department of Commerce has fallen apart because their HR system is terrible. It's our job to know that and say this has happened and we need to fix it.
Casey Dreier: Yes. And I think that goes to the point, and I think maybe this is worth emphasizing really clearly now then, I mean, committee staff exist independently of who the chair is of the committee. Is that true?
Jean Toal Eisen: That is not true. I mean-
Casey Dreier: That's not true.
Jean Toal Eisen: Often we endure, but...
Casey Dreier: Okay.
Jean Toal Eisen: But every member of the Democratic staff of the Appropriations Committee serves at the pleasure of the chair, Senator Murray. And every member of the Democratic staff of the Commerce Committee serves at the pleasure of Senator Cantwell. I was lucky enough to be hired when Senator Inouye was the full committee chair. He consulted with Senator Mikulski as the chairwoman of the subcommittee that I was being hired to staff. And when we transitioned from Senator Inouye's leadership to Senator Mikulski's leadership, she made a point to bring all the staff in and say, "I am keeping this staff. This staff is excellent. They are technically proficient. You are the staff that I want to lead us." And there may be changes at the leadership at the top, but normally the staff on the committee endures because they are excellent. I can't say enough about my colleagues in every subcommittee, just some of the smartest and hardest working people I've ever known, and so curious and interested in how to make things work.
Casey Dreier: That's a great point. And I think what I was trying to go to, you theoretically can be independent of election cycles, but you are serving at the pleasure of the chair and can be fired or hired by them. Yes. Okay. You mentioned something, I think, that's also really important to emphasize, which is you talked about the Democratic staff. Because you served for the Democratic side of the house, you have an equivalent... How would you describe, in a sense, the Republican staff? And I've also heard it described as majority and minority staff based on which party has the majority or minority.
Jean Toal Eisen: Which party is in control.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. What's that relationship like and what's that dynamic? How does that end up working between the two parties over time?
Jean Toal Eisen: Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans may be rivals, but our enemy is the House.
Casey Dreier: That's the one unifying experience. I've heard that. I was going to ask about that at a certain point. There's a different way of doing business there. Yes.
Jean Toal Eisen: Yeah. I mean, in all seriousness, this is a big undertaking and you can't do it alone. And so my view was always that the folks on the other side of the aisle are our partners. And if you look at Senator Moran and Senator Shaheen, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who are the chair and vice-chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriation Subcommittee, they see themselves as partners. And if you ask them, they'd say they agree on about 90% of things. It's in that other 10% that party control matters. And it's also in that 10% that the relationship between the majority and minority, both members and staff, matters. Because that's what's going to determine whether your bill can go or not. Everyone wants their bill to be able to go to the Appropriations Committee, get amended and voted on, or preferably not amended. Never more perfect than when it emerges from subcommittee, we like to say.
Casey Dreier: But when you're in the minority, for example, because you were in the minority for a while, staff throughout the-
Jean Toal Eisen: Absolutely.
Casey Dreier: In the teens. How is that? Is it essentially that the majority party gets final cut, final draft or gets to write the bill in the first place? How much give and take is there? Do they have to listen to you at all? Or is it all just for ongoing partnership knowing that eventually they're going to be in the minority and they don't want to completely cut you out because then they'll be cut out in the future? How has that dynamic worked? How much influence do you structurally or theoretically have as a minority party in Appropriations?
Jean Toal Eisen: Structurally, in the Senate, you've got a lot more power in the minority than you do in the House, simply because of the filibuster.
Casey Dreier: But that's an at a very high level blunt instrument.
Jean Toal Eisen: That's sort of at the high level, but it drives down to the lowest level because at the end of the day, your goal is to get 60 or more votes for this bill. And that is why you're taking into consideration all of the requests that you've gotten in and trying to figure out, is this the hill that this senator's going to die on? Is this the item that's going to get this senator over the edge to vote in favor of this bill? And so you're always doing the calculation to get to 60. Now, every Appropriation subcommittee, I like to say is its own special flower. They all work differently. They all have different rhythms. The Defense Subcommittee is huge, and they have so many things that they are looking at and so many more staffers that they have a different way and rhythm than a smaller subcommittee. CJS is one of the, I guess, medium-sized subcommittees. We're not tiny like Leg Branch, we're not little like State and Foreign Ops, but we're not gigantic like Defense or Labor-H. So we're right in the middle. From the personalities and the relationships that the senators who have been chairs and ranking members of that committee, it sort of flows down. In the minority or in the majority, we write together, we take meetings together, we try to listen to the same input so that when we are making decisions, we can come from a similar place. And I think that makes for more effectiveness because sometimes two people hear things differently than one does. Sometimes the question that my counterpart will ask is asked in just the way that gives me the nugget I needed for something else. So it really is a partnership more than a rivalry. It doesn't mean that we always agree, but it means that we can set some guide rails and set some frameworks where we know these things we're going to agree on, and then we can focus on the 8 or 10 things that we're not going to agree on. And those are usually the things that will require a conversation between members.
Casey Dreier: So at a high level, you'll see things resolved between two members with staff basically in the room taking notes or watching from the sidelines.
Jean Toal Eisen: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Because at the end of the day, I'm not duly elected and sworn. They are.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. But how important is it, do you think, that appropriations have to happen on an annual basis to driving this kind of consensus?
Jean Toal Eisen: It means we have to get our job done. And at the end of the day, you can't walk away from the table for three weeks because you're having a temper tantrum. You can walk away for 30 minutes, but you better get back because there's a deadline coming.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of Casey's interview with Jean Toal Eisen after this short break.
Bill Nye: Greetings, Bill Nye here, CEO of The Planetary Society. As a Planetary Society supporter, you're part of the largest and most influential nonprofit space organization in the world, so thank you. Together we can create a bigger, bolder future for humankind. With 81 new members in Congress and several returning members joining space-related committees which could impact NASA's future projects, our time to act is now. You enable our team to make sure every US representative and senator understands how space exploration can support the nation's goals and technology workforce development, international relations and science. Right now, our members are reaching out to Congress with petitions and phone calls during this important budget season. Then in September, we'll hold our annual Day of Action. Members like you and me will go to Capitol Hill in Washington DC and meet with members of Congress and their staffs to advocate for higher NASA funding. You want to know one thing you can do right now to support all this work? Visit planetary.org/takeaction and donate. Your gift today will be matched up to $75,000, thanks to a generous Planetary Society member. As part of The Planetary Society team, you can help create a better future for all humankind. Let's change the world.
Casey Dreier: I've noticed this, I published a little online research thing with a volunteer earlier this year about the precipitous drop in the rate of authorizations, which used to be more of a consistent partner, I suppose, in performing appropriations. But for authorizations, there's only been six authorizations passed into law since 1994 where appropriations has to happen. And so obviously, there's been appropriations almost every year during that same period.
Jean Toal Eisen: Well, and having been a longtime authorizer and been involved in several of those, I can tell you that in 1998 we negotiated for 11 months. It's the only reason I know how to get to where the House Science Committee's offices are because I trampsed back and forth between the Senate and the House for 11 months. You can't negotiate an Appropriations Bill for 11 months. You've got to get all of the inputs in and get the hearings in and get the requests in from the members and then write, take it to committee, take it to the floor hopefully, and conference with the House. It's got to get done and it's all got to get done in the period of a year or you break things and your goal is not to break things.
Casey Dreier: I'd forgotten that you had had a time on the authorization side. Do you feel the authorizers have given up influence and power by being unable to pass authorizations on a more regular basis over the last 30 years?
Jean Toal Eisen: I think last year was a renaissance for authorizers, at least in the Senate. When you're doing a big reconciliation, when you're doing a big bipartisan infrastructure bill, when you're doing a big bill like CHIPS and Science, those are going to have major impacts for years. Now, what's the commonality in all of those things? Money.
Casey Dreier: Well, yes.
Jean Toal Eisen: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law spent billions of dollars. The Inflation Reduction Act had billions of dollars in it. And even CHIPS and Science, while the science part didn't spend a penny, just said it would be nice to spend many pennies, the CHIPS part provided 52 billion dollars. That was the common thread. But having those big authorizations with mandatory funding in them really was a driver for the authorizers to be able to get a lot of things done that they've been wanting to get done. And it really was an all-of-Senate team. Those are things that fell in Other Duties As Assigned. So...
Casey Dreier: Right.
Jean Toal Eisen: I got to see the inside of a lot of those things in the category of Other Duties As Assigned. But those policy committees are essential. Don't tell the authorizers I said that. And it's another input when you're a small Appropriations staff and you've got four, five people who have to look at the entire Department of Commerce, the entire Department of Justice, NASA, National Science Foundation, and several other related agencies. You need to know who to call to say, "Okay, we've got this issue at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and I know you know chapter and verse about the history of it, and can you remind me why we are advocating for this instead of that? Can you help me with your expertise?" To go back to the role of committee staff, a lot of times, and it's regardless of committee, it's to be the person that someone can call and say, "Hey, wait, what?" And have someone explain in a way you can understand why that nuance is important and what that nuance does.
Casey Dreier: I understand the value of having basically a different group of people specializing in the same agency, particularly with an oversight angle, but I guess looking at the fact that authorizations used to be on an annual basis and would authorize expenditures, which were something you-
Jean Toal Eisen: Still do in the Department of Defense.
Casey Dreier: That's the one exemption because it's, like, half of all discretionary spending. But I mean, so was it easier? Is it nicer? Is it more flexible for the appropriators to not have that to work with? In a sense, that's what I was getting at with the lack of regular authorizations. Does that free up and give more influence to appropriators? Because also through the related committee reports, I feel like you start to see a lot of policy or soft policy being set through Appropriations that would otherwise have originally come through authorizations. And in the absence of that or in that vacuum, you see maybe more of that represented in Appropriations, at least on the non-Defense side of the House.
Jean Toal Eisen: I mean, if you've got the money, your voice is always going to be louder. And that's time immemorial. When I joined the Commerce Committee, I joined under the leadership of Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, and I was working on issues regarding NOAA and NASA, and those were also in his purview as chair of the CJS Subcommittee of Appropriations. So I can't tell you how many times we'd go, "Eh, we'll fix it in Approps."
Casey Dreier: So let's move forward a little bit into this process of appropriations and something that I think I'm always... Having been on the outside of this, ever, what I'm always curious to understand is how does this prioritization ultimately work at the end of the day? So you get nominally the president's budget justification as a starting point. Now, is that something the whole staff reads through very closely as a starting point? Or how seriously does that set the basis of your work for that coming year? Or do you just look at the top line numbers and say, "This is realistic, this is unrealistic?" How does that feed into this process that you then start writing the subcommittee legislation for CJS?
Jean Toal Eisen: If you could see my floor, you would see that I have the NSF congressional justification open on it, open to a page. And I had a colleague who would always laugh because she'd say, "What was it that this agency asked for?" And I'd pull out a book and flip to it before she could search on the internet for it. There are reasons that those are called the congressional justifications, and it's because we use them as the basis of our work. Again, not the only input, but a really important input. And you asked about the prioritization. I mean, it's sort of concentric Tupperwares. Each one gets smaller. So it starts with, and this is going to be the big fight this year in FY24, what can the Appropriations Committee spend? It's called the 302A for a section of the Congressional Budget Act, but it's really how big is the piece of the pie that discretionary spending is going to be. Often in that negotiation, the division between Defense and non-Defense is also made, although there are currently no firewalls in law. So you get a 302A and then the chair and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee parcel that out to the subcommittees. So at the end of the day, CJS is told, "This is how much you have to spend for the vast panoply of the things that you need to do, from the census and weather satellites to immigration judges." Then the fun really begins.
Casey Dreier: Right. So I mean, I noticed that you as a staff were nowhere... Or were you in that negotiation up to that point? Or do you just receive this much. It's like, "You get this, you get this much and then you all make it work."
Jean Toal Eisen: You get various taskings from the full committee throughout the year. And I've been on the inside of that because I was the deputy staff director of the full committee under Senator Mikulski while also doing CJS. So that's a lot. I recommend one job for anyone. Two is too many. But it's not done in a vacuum. They're looking at how much did you have last year? What's in the president's request? What things that are in the president's request are things that we don't want to do? What things that are in the president's request are things we do want to do that are going to cost money? Are there differences in the way that the Congressional Budget Office will score the things in your bill than how the president requested them? And all of those are things that the subcommittee's input to the full committee and iterate with the full committee before the full committee makes those decisions about what the pots are.
Casey Dreier: And what was CJS's allocation roughly last year? Was it something 70-ish?
Jean Toal Eisen: I'm going to say roughly 80 billion.
Casey Dreier: Roughly 80 billion. So I mean, this is where once you get that, that's where things become zero-sum in terms of tradeoffs, right? Where you-
Jean Toal Eisen: Correct.
Casey Dreier: Once we have that number. So if you have 80 billion, you got to fund NASA, NSF. I mean, the fact that Commerce is in there too, or Justice, so you're funding the FBI, the Federal Marshals. It's a strange, frankly, mix of responsibilities all grouped together here. How do you even see growth start to happen in one agency over another over time, given that zero-sum nature. The alignment seems to have to happen in all various areas from the White House, the OMB, to maybe the Budget Committee or to the full Appropriations leadership to the subcommittee. It just seems like a lot of people have to suddenly start thinking this agency needs to grow versus another one.
Jean Toal Eisen: Absolutely. And I could take an example not in our bill. When you looked at the doubling of NIH, that really came from the chair and ranking member being committed to it and committed to it over time and saying, "This is going to be our priority and it may mean that we can't do other things." And so that's when you really have to go back to the first principle, which is what are the priorities of the chair and ranking member and how are we going to make sure that those things happen, in addition to being responsible about the rest of the portfolio. So if you look at CJS, we've got to do a census every 10 years. We've got to do it. It's not mandatory in the budgetary sense. It is used for billions of dollars of federal spending to be allocated amongst cities and towns. It is used for businesses to understand what's going on in our country. It is used to guarantee us the franchise and make sure that we are adequately represented. And so it's really important and we got to do it. And so when we're sitting there in a year that ends in eight or nine where the census is going to happen in a zero year, you got to make sure they have the tools that they need. You've been watching over the decade, but that's when the spending is ramping up. And so making sure that that happens is one of those inputs that you give to the full committee. I know I'm asking you for 2 billion more than I did last year, but this is why, and this is why it's essential. There's some things like that where you just got to take it off the top and say, "Okay, yes, our bill is going up by this much, and if we did a peanut butter spread, that wouldn't solve this particular problem."
Casey Dreier: I'd like to switch gears and focus on specifically NASA a little bit, obviously close to my heart and in the CJS portfolio. And I noticed, I think when you started in 2010 in CJS, that's basically when things hit the fan with JWST, if I'm remembering correctly.
Jean Toal Eisen: One of the first meetings I had was people coming in to say, "Something's wrong here. And they're taking out a lot of tests that they need to not be taking out, and they're squeezing things that are the wrong things to squeeze. And you guys should get to the bottom of it."
Casey Dreier: Talk a little bit about your experience ushering this project through its troubled development period, from turning into a big mission into the functionally biggest single science mission NASA's done. And you already talked about the role that you had where you're getting lots of detailed warnings and pretty granular level of awareness of following the project. And also I'd be curious, was there ever serious discussion about just pulling the plug early on?
Jean Toal Eisen: I mean, square zero is that the biggest advocate for astronomy in the United States Senate, the United States Congress was Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She didn't just have space telescope as her neighbor and Goddard in her backyard. She had a passion for this stuff. This was really important to her. But she's also someone who believed in tough love and strict oversight. And so that's sort of the milieu that it takes place in. And so the first thing we did was say, "Nobody's telling us the real story here." And we've got to get some outside people in to take a look at this and say, "Are we on the right track? Is this still worth doing? And if so, how do we fix it?" And what we learned was, for whatever reason, and I don't want to attribute ill motives, but people weren't owning up to the fact of what it really took in terms of dollars to get a project like the James Webb Space Telescope done. So because they were trying to make it on the cheap, they were doing things that were penny wise and pound foolish, and were going to threaten not just the cost of the project, but the success of the project. And remember that Senator Mikulski is the person who pushed Hubble and then it got up there and it needed the most expensive contact lens ever made. And so she didn't want that to happen because you couldn't take a contact lens to the James Webspace Space Telescope. So the first thing we did was write a letter to the NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, and say, "You've got to appoint a blue-ribbon panel." But we didn't stop there. When that panel report came back, it had a lot of elements in it. The one that most of us remember is it laid out a cost and schedule that was phenomenally more expensive than anyone had seen before then, but it also had a lot of management tools. It recommended that the CEO of Northrop Grumman and the NASA administrator have quarterly meetings, which they did. And then we would have a quarterly meeting with the project managers from NASA and say, "Tell us about this interaction." Senator Mikulski would talk to the CEOs and the NASA administrator, and it was sort of your quarterly teeth cleaning. You had to do it. And so it wasn't just the money. You also asked, was it ever seriously at risk? Yes, it was. The House actually wrote an Appropriations Bill with $0 in it for the James Webb Space Telescope. It took a marshaling, not just of one senator or a group of senators, but of scientists and advocates throughout the country to turn that around and to not just put in the amount that NASA had asked for, but to put in the amount that this blue-ribbon panel, the Casani report had told us was needed. The backend of that is we also put a total cap in law on the James Webspace Space Telescope, and we came back every year and said, "How are you managing to this?" It was a long process, and Appropriations is a one-year process, but you can do a lot of long-range planning and oversight in a one-year bill. You just have to keep at it over many years.
Casey Dreier: Obviously now we're looking back and it's worked and it's great, and I don't want to even suggest that JWST wasn't worth it, because I think it was. But given the fact, you'd even just mentioned, you had written into law it should not cost more than 8 billion dollars, but it ended up breaking even that, right? They ended up needing an extra 800 million on top of that. Do you consider this a success or failure in terms of how Appropriations and Congress managed this project or through that responsibility or through NASA?
Jean Toal Eisen: There's certainly lessons learned, but the fact that they came back and said, "We need 809 more million and this is why, and these are the things that caused us to need that, and these are the mistakes that were made," were the justifications that ultimately were inputs for Senator Moran and Senator Shaheen to say, "All right, well, we can go ahead and raise this cap."
Casey Dreier: So a lot of it is almost through the deployment of congressional attention, you can drive a lot of action and changes.
Jean Toal Eisen: Oversight doesn't just happen in hearings.
Casey Dreier: Right. We're running out of time here and I want to respect your time, but one more question. I'd love to hear from your experience in staff and seeing members of Congress engage with just broader representation and constituents, how valuable is the role of individuals coming in to give their input into this process? So we talked a lot about the role of managing agency oversight, managing political needs, managing the needs of members, but where do you see this role of individuals and constituents in this process?
Jean Toal Eisen: Oh, it's essential. Almost every member will come back in a new congressional week and say, "I talked to so-and-so about this issue or this project, and he said..." Whatever the person said. And it drives their curiosity, it drives their interest. Knowing how something like the space program, that you don't think of as being in New Hampshire, actually impacts New Hampshire. It's one thing for some big prime contractor to tell you, "Well, it impacts 1800 jobs in New Hampshire." It's another thing for somebody to say, "Because of this work, I expanded my factory and hired a hundred people, and oh, by the way, why don't you come see us?" That's the most powerful tool that any constituent has. This is your representative, your senator. They care about your home. Congress is a collection of folks who are there to make their states and districts better, and that's why you hear senators say, "I'm the Senator for Virginia," not from Virginia.
Casey Dreier: That's a great way to put it.
Jean Toal Eisen: It's your most powerful tool to influence what government does, is to actually invite these folks to see what you do and why it matters.
Casey Dreier: It's a great lesson. Jean, I really appreciate your time. I could pick your brain for hours. Unfortunately, we only have one today, but I really want to thank you for your time. Jean Toal Eisen is the Vice President for Corporate Strategy at the Association of Universities for Research and Astronomy, AURA, and previously served for over a decade in the Senate staff for Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee of Appropriations. Way too many long words in that sentence.
Jean Toal Eisen: That's why we just call it CJS.
Casey Dreier: CJS.
Jean Toal Eisen: Well, Casey, thank you for having me. I love talking about this stuff because I really do think it's important and I really wish more people understood it.
Casey Dreier: Well, we will have to have you back on in the future to help us work through future events and to dive into this in various ways as well, and maybe talk about authorizations, the other side of this, in more detail.
Jean Toal Eisen: Absolutely.
Casey Dreier: Great. We will look forward to it, Jean. Thank you and have a wonderful day.
Jean Toal Eisen: You too.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Another wonderful conversation, Casey. That was awesome.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Sarah. That was a really fun one to have, and again, I really want to thank Jean for sharing the insights and experience of an generally unrecognized and underappreciated role that she played in other people's play every day, working in the halls of Congress.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, it's a complicated process. Most of us, our understanding of these things goes back to that Schoolhouse Rock, "I'm just a bill sitting on Capitol Hill." And that's where your knowledge stops. So understanding how the pie gets made.
Casey Dreier: Knowledge, yes, knowing's half the battle and understanding the process, but also respecting and knowing where and how to engage with people in Jean's role really makes a difference in the long run. And also, frankly, understanding that they're just people too at the end of the day, and generally really well-motivated and honorable people trying to do their best. And I think that helps us all walk away feeling a little bit better about the system that represents us, and we can have some optimism that it is something that can respond to some of our better angels and throw some of those resources into space exploration at the end of the day.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: I know we all sound like broken Golden Records, but honestly, space brings out the best in us.
Casey Dreier: It does over and over again. Yes, absolutely. I'd love to talk about the Space Advocate Newsletter, my monthly newsletter. It's free. You don't even have to be a member to get this. Though, of course, you want to be a member. Why wouldn't you be? Because then you get to talk about it in the member community. But it's a monthly newsletter. It's kind of a companion to this podcast. But every month I highlight a handful of the top issues in space policy, and I write a custom just for you essay about something fascinating happening in the world of space policy and politics. Do not miss it. I think it adds quite a bit of interesting context, if I do say so myself, and you can subscribe for free at planetary.org/spaceadvocate.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: And all of you Planetary Society members out there, please come into our member community, join our space policy space and talk with us about all these things because this is what we love. This is what we're doing every day to advance space science and exploration, and it's so much more fun the more people we get in there.
Casey Dreier: Absolutely. If you really disagree with something I say in the newsletter, you can say that in the member community and I will respond to you. Or maybe, more aptly, if you want to praise me for all the great insights that I provide in the Space Advocate Newsletter, that's also a great opportunity to do that too. You can talk right to me and other great parts of the staff in The Planetary Society, in the community, and your fellow members that are all great.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for joining us today, everyone. We hope that you join us in our virtual Day of Action later this month. And if you're not already a member, please consider joining us at planetary.org/join. You make all of our space policy work and the show possible, so we're really grateful. And thanks for joining me today, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Always a pleasure, Sarah. See you next month.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have a great time with the rest of your trip in Vienna. And until next time, everyone, ad astra.