Brent Blevins Makes Mars Policy in Congress

In this installment of Science Policy IRL, Lisa Margonelli goes behind the scenes of congressional policymaking with Brent Blevins. Blevins is a senior congressional staffer and staff director of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, which is part of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Space, Science, and Technology.

Blevins discusses his unusual path into science policy (he didn’t study science, and he wasn’t a AAAS fellow!) and what staffers in the House and Senate do in the science policy world. He also talks about the incredible experience of getting to set policy for things like sending humans to Mars, while at the same time having a staff job that can end with any two-year election cycle.

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Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academy of Sciences and Arizona State University.

I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. On this installment of Science Policy IRL, we’re going behind the scenes of Congress with Brent Blevins. Brent is a senior congressional staffer and staff director of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, which is part of the US House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. Brent talks to us about his unusual path into science policy, and what staffers in the House and Senate do in the science policy world. He also talks about the incredible experience of getting to set policy for, say, sending humans to Mars, while also having a staff job that can end with any two-year election cycle. Brent, welcome.

Brent Blevins: Hi, Lisa. Thank you for having me today.

Margonelli: We’re going to start with our usual first question which is: how do you define science policy?

Blevins: Well, that’s a million-dollar question, but if we’re talking in terms of the federal government, it’s a question of tens of billions of dollars, right? I don’t know that there is a great concise definition. I kind of view it as the intersection of governance in science. How does policymaking impact the scientific enterprise and vice versa? How does science inform policymaking? And it manifests itself in a lot of different ways: through funding for federal agencies, for research grants, workforce development, the construction of federal facilities. There’s a lot of different ways to define it. Not to use kind of the cliched Potter Stewart expression, “I know it when I see it.” It’s this very unique process that is often messy but is also very important for both our country, but also for the scientific enterprise in the United States as well.

Margonelli: It’s sort of a place where taxpayers have a voice, because taxpayers put up about $200 billion a year for science, and a lot of that runs through the House Science Committee and the Senate committees that deal with this. And so it is a place where the public is involved in a sort of an indirect way.

Blevins: Exactly. We meet often with members of the scientific community, and I think it’s very important that it’s kind of a two-way street. What insights do we have on behalf of the taxpayer to the work that’s going on at these federal agencies? But it also gives scientists a chance to explain why their work is important, and how the taxpayer is getting a good return on investment.

Margonelli: So, you work in this really kind of spectacular subcommittee, which is the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. It’s a subcommittee because it’s part of the House Science Committee. Tell us, what do you do there? For the past week, what have you been doing?

We actually don’t provide dollars to the agencies. We are a policy committee. We set policy direction, we provide guidance, we provide oversight to their activities.

Blevins: So right now what’s on our plate is a NASA authorization bill. So let me explain what that is and how Congress is structured. So, we actually don’t provide dollars to the agencies. We are a policy committee. We set policy direction, we provide guidance, we provide oversight to their activities to ensure that the agencies within our committee’s jurisdictions are acting within the law. And so, one of the ways we do that is we write authorizing legislation, enabling legislation. And so in this instance, NASA is a unique agency. They were created in 1958 as a result of Sputnik. And the Congress at the time gave NASA pretty broad authority. They were permanently authorized—not to use a jargony term—but “as such sums as necessary.” In other words, they were not given an upper limit to how much money they could be given.

But one of the ways that Congress asserts its oversight role is by writing authorization legislation. That’s where we provide policy direction, where we tell NASA, “Okay, you’re going to do a scientific mission to this planet in the solar system,” “You’re going to investigate this earthbound phenomenon,” “You’re going to send astronauts to the Moon and then Mars.” So that’s the bill that we’re working on right now. We’re going to be unveiling that this summer. And it’s the first time we’ve had a comprehensive NASA authorization bill since March of 2017. A lot has been happening at the agency since then. And so we’re working on this legislation quite a bit right now. It’s important to update these things from time to time just based on the work of the agencies.

Margonelli: So that authorization decides whether or not NASA should go to Mars, or whether it’s going to go back to the Moon and do things on the Moon, that sort of sets the direction and plans that then the agency carries out?

Blevins: Exactly. That’s exactly what we intend to do. And so once we set the policy, one of our other committees in Congress, it’s called the Appropriations Committee, they then fund the bill, and they provide the money for NASA to carry out the missions that we’ve directed them to do.

Margonelli: So, is it kind of wild that you get to work on the question of whether or not NASA goes to Mars? I mean, do you talk about it when you’re having a barbecue?

One of the great things about the House Science Committee is it’s pretty bipartisan.

Blevins: I tell people that I get to have meetings with astronauts. I get to go to rocket launches, I get to contemplate these larger questions. And it’s fascinating. One of the great things about the House Science Committee is it’s pretty bipartisan. We don’t have to wrestle with a lot of the issues, the contentious issues, you see on the news every night. We get to contemplate sort of these bigger picture ideas. And I think that’s really neat. I tell people that I get to work on NASA issues. Everyone I talk to is like, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty neat. That’s pretty cool.” And I never have a dull day in the office. I am always learning something. NASA’s always pushing the boundaries, and it forces me to keep up with what they’re doing. And that’s really invigorating and it’s really joyful.

Margonelli: So tell me just a little bit about what a typical day looks like for you.

Blevins: My day starts—I’m guessing like so many of your listeners—I subscribe to a lot of new services. I’m trying to make sure that I know what’s happening in the world, both in terms of say, space policy, but what’s happening on Capitol Hill, what are national stories, what’s happening internationally, because there’s a confluence where they all come together at times. And understanding that context is really important.

And so we have our committee. In Congress, we have two sort of distinct roles. I mean, one’s legislating, which I was just talking about, writing a NASA authorization bill that will hopefully be signed into law this year. But there’s also an oversight component as well, where we’re monitoring what the agency is doing on certain things, ensuring that they’re complying with prior law, ensuring that they’re acting consistent with congressional intent. Under the Constitution, Congress writes the laws, it’s executive branch’s job to carry them out. And so our job is to ensure that there is a smooth path there.

I meet a lot with stakeholders. I think sometimes people imagine that, if they have a negative stereotype of Congress or what people do, it’s all these lobbyists wearing three-piece suits and that sort of thing. And that’s really not the case at all. We meet with a lot of STEM advocates, university faculty. We meet with just a wide range of people. And they come to talk to us. Sometimes it’s just a brief about the research they’re doing. Sometimes it’s to advocate for something in a NASA authorization bill.

So my days are pretty full, but I love it. I have the kind of job where I don’t mind taking work home with me, particularly when it’s topics like this.

Margonelli: So, specifically you’re a Republican staffer on the committee. Can you explain how that works when power changes?

Blevins: Yeah, sure. So committees have a majority staff and they have a minority staff. The House and Senate operate a little bit differently. In the Senate, it is the breakdown of the majority staffs and the minority staffs are proportionate to the makeup of the Senate writ large. So right now, in the Senate it’s 51-49 Democrats to Republicans, or the conference ratios. So whoever the majority party is, in this case the Democrats, say, “We get 51% of the budget.”

In the House, it’s a little bit different. Whoever’s the majority party gets two thirds of the budget, and the minority party gets one third. And that means that the majority has a lot more responsibility. Not only do we have more policy responsibility, but logistical responsibility, just setting up hearings and doing paperwork, and that sort of thing.

So, in the House, unlike the Senate, our entire body’s up every two years. There’s a little bit more volatility in our makeup and what could happen from election to election. Prior to the November ’22 election, when the Republicans took the majority, I worked the prior four years for the committee in the minority capacity. So I was part of that one third.

It’s not really a traditional federal job in the sense of, if you have good performance, you have a certain amount of security.

So, just an example, last year we doubled our staff, and we took on a lot more responsibility. So when you have this role, you’re always sort of cognizant of the election, what could happen. Currently, the House, I believe the ratio is 217 Republicans, 213 Democrats. So I mean, anyone who claims to know what will happen in November, either outcome could happen. So, it’s entirely possible that the parties could flip again. And then frankly, a lot of our staff will be searching for a job.

Margonelli: On the one hand, you’re super, super educated, and highly dedicated, and working in this really particular system. And on the other hand, every two years you could be out. You don’t have tenure.

Blevins: That’s exactly right. It’s not really a traditional federal job in the sense of, if you have good performance, you have a certain amount of security. And that’s sort of the inherent nature of the role. And you don’t do so lightly, I think. But I’ve had the experience… I worked for a committee, the Agriculture Committee in the House prior and I lost my job as a result. And thankfully, I landed on my feet. But I think particularly when we hire people who don’t have as much political experience, it’s important to say, “Okay, I can guarantee you’ll have a job for 18 months, 20 months. I can’t promise you anything beyond that.” So it does create an interesting dynamic.

Margonelli: That’s really interesting. So let’s talk about how you got into this job. How do you end up with a career path that gets you to both be planning to go to Mars and also unable to know where you’re going to be in two years?

I came to DC, and I knew two people. That’s no hyperbole.

Blevins: Well, I’ll share my story, because I have a sort of a circuitous path. I’ve always been interested in science to some extent. I was a kid and I had this incredible knowledge of space. I could tell you how far Neptune’s orbit was from Earth, and I could tell you various minutiae. So I was always interested. I went to college, I started in computer science, and my GPA after my first year was 2.05. That zero in there is very important. It wasn’t working. I got into history, I picked up a political science as a second major, and I got a master’s of public administration. So I was kind of on that path. When I was in grad school, I got very interested in the political process, like the electoral process. And, “Oh, I’m going to go do campaigns.” And it’s one thing to go help out a campaign for a day and think, “Oh, that’s so great. That’s so invigorating.” It’s another thing when that’s your entire life. And I quickly realized, “Okay, I think I’m more interested in policy than getting people elected.”

So I actually served for a guy in the Virginia General Assembly, and I was like, “Okay, I think this is more of my liking, but I want to try to do this in Washington, DC if I’m going to do this.” I came to DC, and I knew two people. That’s no hyperbole. And one of them helped me get an internship. It eventually led to a job at the House Agriculture Committee. And that was great. But one day I was walking through one of the congressional buildings, the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill right across from the Capitol, and NASA had this exhibit. It was called NASA Spinoffs. And it’s one of the outreach activities that they do, which helps share the work that they’re doing, how it affects you on a daily basis, in your daily life.

And I just started talking to people. And I met somebody who worked for the House Science Committee, and I was like, “Wait, you can do that? I had no idea.” And I always sort of had in the back of my mind, I was like, “I would love to go work there. That’s my end goal, dream goal.”

I lost my job at the Agriculture Committee. I went to go work for another committee. And one day my boss said, “Hey, how would you like to go work in the Senate?” And I asked, “Well, are you trying to fire me?” He wasn’t. I think he was very cognizant that having Senate experience is good too, because if you’re not in DC and you don’t do this work a lot, you might not appreciate that there are differences between how the House and Senate operate. If you’re in the Senate, you get elected every six years, the House, every two years. I mean, it creates different dynamics.

So I went to go work in the Senate. And my first boss, the senator, he was appointed to his seat in Alabama, and he ended up losing his seat within a few months. And I hadn’t really anticipated that. So I’m out of a job. And I got very fortunate. I was scooped up by the then Senate Majority Whip, his name is John Cornyn from Texas. He actually hired me to do agriculture work. And during the interview they said, “We’re thinking about giving you the space portfolio,” which is a big deal for Texas for a number of reasons. And I just thought, “Oh, my gosh, that’s it. This is how I can reorient.”

There’s not that one correct, well-defined path.

And so I did that, and I was very content. I really liked it. And my former boss from the House Agriculture Committee, I knew he was probably going to be taking over the Science Committee as a top Republican. And so I just reached out and said, “Hey, I’d be really interested. If you were looking for someone to work on space, and other areas.” And it worked out. And so I’m not a scientist, I’m a liberal arts person, but it still allowed me to do my job. And so again, if you look at our committee staff, I mean, we have a wide range. We have engineers, we have people with very technical backgrounds. We have people who worked in industry who have come worked on the Hill. There’s not that one correct, well-defined path.

Margonelli: That’s interesting, because a lot of times on this podcast we actually talk to scientists who’ve made the crossover. But it’s really interesting to hear from your background in political science and history that you made the crossover into science policy also, because that’s also a whole set of information, and values, and ways of processing information and thinking about things that also is really important in making science policy. It’s not merely science experience. Can I ask why you wanted to go back to the House, even though it’s a little less secure than the Senate?

Blevins: So, I was making this decision in early 2019. And the House had flipped. Republicans had gone from being the majority to being in the minority. So not only was I going from the Senate to the House, I was going from the Senate majority to the House minority, which, if you had a pecking order, I was going from the top to the bottom. It’s a great question.

But one of the reasons I wanted to come back is, one, I knew my boss and I knew he was going to be outstanding in the role, and he’s absolutely proved to be the case. But it was also a chance at a Committee that can really focus in on issues in a way that if you work for an individual member of Congress or Senator, that you can’t. You just have these broad portfolios. When I worked for Senator Cornyn, I worked on appropriations, I worked on agriculture, space, I did post offices, I did some veterans issues. I would be trying to figure out 10 minutes before a meeting what was the underlying issue here. So I really valued that opportunity to come to a Committee where you can really just focus in on some smaller, more specific areas, and be able to do a deeper dive. And I think that sort of was more conducive to my skillset than having to have knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep, so to speak.

Margonelli: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about what that meant for individual staffers and what you needed to be able to answer to.

So here we are, we’re winding up with the last question. What are the big questions that keep you doing this work that excite you when you go to the office in the morning?

To be able to contemplate big questions like that, I think is a real privilege.

Blevins: I would say there are two tracks to that. I think a lot of the questions that I think about and really deal with are—I don’t want to sound like I’m engaging hyperbole, but I think some of these things are very existential questions in terms of space exploration. What is humanity’s future in the solar system? Are we going to establish a colony on the Moon, Mars, sort of thing? Are we laying the groundwork to eventually be a multi-planet species? To be able to contemplate big questions like that, I think is a real privilege.

One of the pieces of legislation I’m most proud of that I worked on—was passed and signed into law in October 2020—had to deal with space weather. And I’m guessing your listeners have a probably higher level of knowledge about space weather and kind of what that entails. And a lot of the population doesn’t know and they don’t necessarily understand the solar cycle, and that there are real potential implications. There’s a big coronal mass ejection from the Sun, and it has negative repercussions on our satellite fleet. In this bill that I worked on, we really helped to define federal roles and ensure better coordination between federal agencies. Not only forecasting, but what the response would be. And so these are questions that are, I think, very important for our future.

I think the second track I would mention too is, how are we ensuring the success of the American scientific enterprise? Because it’s a competitiveness issue. Whether it’s ensuring that we’re engaged in the level basic research to build on for the future, or having an adequate workforce in these areas. These are very important questions, and we have international competitors. I know all the listeners are aware of that. Every hearing I think we’ve done in our committee this Congress has had a China focus in some either direct or indirect manner. And I’m not saying China’s the only thing we should be concerned about, of course, but it’s kind of one of the most imminent threats right now. I’m not saying the American ecosystem in every way is perfect, but I feel strongly that our way of doing things, our establishment of norms and standards, is far superior than anyone else.

So those are the two things that motivate me, that keep me going, and coming to work, and reading through things every morning. That’s really what drives me.

Margonelli: Thank you so much. This was a great conversation. Thank you, Brent.

Blevins: No, Lisa, thank you. I very much appreciate the chance to speak with you today. I do want to make the offer that hopefully you can put my contact information. I want to hear from people. I have an open inbox, and I’m happy to answer questions. I’m happy to talk with anyone who might be interested.

Margonelli: Thank you. I want to ask you one last question. How many emails do you get a day?

Blevins: I am the victim of… I think I subscribed to too many news clip services. I actually really appreciate when I get the weekly Issues email. You did not ask me to plug this! So it’s great to when I get these weekly, but when I get breaking news alerts, it really adds up between Politico and Roll Call and The Hill and Bloomberg, all these different news agencies. And sometimes it does sort of help to just put everything in a folder. I get hundreds a day. I’m afraid to actually try to count them, because I would probably just, become very depressed if I did so.

Margonelli: Thank you so much. That’s amazing. That is truly service to the nation.

If you want to add to Brent’s email inbox, you can reach him at (EDITOR’s NOTE: email redacted in transcript to reduce spam, but please listen to the episode to find his email if you would like to contact Blevins!). And if you want to try emailing us, you can contact us at [email protected], or by tagging us on social media using the hashtag #SciencePolicyIRL.

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Please subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcast. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and our audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues and Science and Technology. Thank you for listening.

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Cite this Article

Blevins, Brent, and Lisa Margonelli. “Brent Blevins Makes Mars Policy in Congress.” Issues in Science and Technology (June 18, 2024).