Republicans on the House Science Committee expressed support during a Feb. 25 hearing for the Space Leadership Preservation Act, a bill that would create a board of directors for NASA who would select nominees for the position of NASA administrator, and give that administrator a 10-year term.“We simply have to give NASA greater stability,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor, in testimony at the hearing. “We need to make this agency less political and more professional.”
Culberson and others cited as the primary reason for this legislation the space policy shakeup created by the Obama administration when it sought to cancel the Constellation program in 2010 and end efforts to return humans to the moon, the goal set out by the previous administration and endorsed by Congress in two NASA authorization bills.
“Presidential transitions often have provided a challenge to NASA programs that require continuity and budget stability, but few have been as rocky as the administration change we experienced seven years ago,” said House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).
Some of the other witnesses at the hearing agreed with that assessment, and minced few words in doing so. “We were executing a powerful and compelling new plan” when the Obama administration took office, argued Mike Griffin, who served as NASA administrator from 2005 until 2009. “But by early 2010, just a year later, this strategy was in disarray.”
“I believe program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly and many times more expensive in the long run,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins.
Not every member at the hearing supported the bill. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), one of the few Democrats who participated, said she doubted the bill would be effective. Among the concerns she raised was the composition of the proposed board of directors. Eight of its 11 members would be selected by Congress, three by the majority party and one by the minority party in each house. That approach, she said, “injects partisan politics into a board that ostensibly is supposed to insulate NASA from politics.”
Witnesses also raised issues with provisions of the bill. Collins was skeptical of the 10-year term for the NASA administrator, suggesting its length might deter potential candidates. “I think the concept is good, but it might be too long,” she said. “It may be hard to find somebody among all the qualified people out there who initially want to commit for 10 years.”
Griffin questioned the bill’s requirement that the board develop its own budget proposal, which it would deliver to Congress separately from the official budget proposal developed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. “I would wonder where they would get their information,” he said of the board’s budget.
He added, though, that approach had the benefit, in his opinion, of getting around the OMB. “Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome,” he said.
Culberson said he was open to changes to his bill. “I have welcomed suggestions or ideas on how we can modify this legislation, but I have put a lot of thought into this,” he said.
The hearing was the first action the House has taken on Culberson’s bill, which he introduced last April. The bill’s odds of passage this year are long, though, even if the House ultimately approves the bill. The Senate has taken little or no action on other NASA-related legislation and there is limited time available in Congress in general this year because of the elections in November.