U.S. House Lawmakers Resurrect NASA Restructuring Bill

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WASHINGTON — With the aim of overhauling NASA’s leadership structure, U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and a coalition of mostly Republican lawmakers retooled a bill that died in committee late last year and refiled it for consideration Feb. 26.

Culberson, along with co-sponsor Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, announced the new proposal Feb. 27 at a hearing of the House Science space subcommittee. The two testified before the subcommittee about the bill, but did not take questions from members. The bill’s reintroduction comes as lawmakers are preparing to write new authorizing legislation for NASA. Appropriations authorized in 2010 expire this year.

Culberson’s other cosponsors include Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and two fellow Texans, Republican Pete Olson and Democrat Gene Green.

“I’m trying to make the agency more professional and less political by doing everything that we can as policy makers to encourage the professionals, the scientists, the engineers, the astronauts at that agency to do what they do best,” Culberson testified at the Feb. 27 hearing.

He added that the new bill “has truly been a labor of love for Chairman Wolf and I.”

Culberson’s bill would set a six-year fixed term for the NASA administrator, who along with a deputy and chief financial officer would be selected by the White House from a list of three nominees provided by an 11-member NASA board of directors. The board, another creation of the proposed legislation, would be made up of presidential and congressional appointees, who would serve three-year terms.

The bill would give board members responsibility for preparing NASA’s annual budget request for congressional appropriators, and direct NASA to send its request simultaneously to the White House and Congress each year.

Currently, the NASA administrator and deputy administrator are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and serve at the president’s pleasure. Also under current law, the White House Office of Management and Budget vets NASA’s internal spending proposal before it is delivered to Congress as part of the president’s annual budget request for the entire government.

The revamped bill introduced Feb. 26, The Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 823), is similar, but not identical, to the proposal a slightly different coalition of GOP lawmakers unveiled in September at a press briefing on Capitol Hill.

The new bill shortens the proposed term of the NASA administrator from 10 years to six, and limits the deputy administrator to serving 45 days as acting administrator. If a new NASA administrator is not appointed by then, NASA’s associate administrator — the agency’s top civil servant — would take over as acting NASA boss.

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) stopped short of endorsing Culberson’s bill, but signaled that the subcommittee would consider its provisions as part of the next NASA reauthorization bill.

Culberson and his co-sponsors “have offered us a proposal for many of the challenges facing our nation’s space agency,” Palazzo said. “Through the authorization process, we look forward to working together to implement those ideas which will benefit the agency long term.”

The subcommittee’s new ranking Democrat, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, all but dismissed the bill.

“These proposals don’t suggest to me an improvement on models of agency administration,” Edwards said at the hearing. “They suggest a desire to mimic how businesses are run, and I don’t see the value of turning NASA into a business.”

The Feb. 27 hearing was House lawmakers’ first official look at Culberson and Wolf’s bill.

The Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Space Foundation, a nonprofit, started promoting ideas similar to those in Culberson’s bill.

An administration official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak publicly, said such changes would only lead to greater politicization of NASA.

“Efforts to decouple NASA from politics, whether from the Hill or elsewhere, and election cycles are noble, but this bill and the recommendations in the Space Foundation report would do the opposite,” this official said. “Instead, a new level of political bureaucracy would be added to NASA, which is the last thing the agency needs, especially in an era of tight budgets.”

The Space Foundation in December issued the report, “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space,” that echoes recommendations in the Space Leadership Preservation Act, including term appointments for the NASA administrator and creating an 11-member board of advisers to review NASA policy proposals from the White House and Congress.

There is “connective tissue between this report and the contents of the act,” Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer Elliot Pulham said at the hearing.

Former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young, who testified at the Feb. 27 hearing, said he was concerned that the board called for in Culberson’s bill could become a tool of those who choose its members.

During the hearing, Posey asked if Young, who spent 15 years with NASA before joining Lockheed, foresaw any unintended consequences in Culberson’s proposal to revamp NASA.

“The top of my list is the members of the board,” Young said. “The wrong board would be a disaster.”

Young said the lobbying that could take place to secure a spot on the board might create a situation where board members would arrive to carry out the agenda of the people who appointed them, rather than an agenda that serves NASA’s best interests.

Without offering an endorsement of the bill, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) voiced support for Culberson’s desire to give NASA long-term stability in the face of shifting political winds.

“NASA is too often hampered by short term decisions that have a long term negative impact,” Smith said. “We must step back, look at the agency as a whole, and work to put it on the long term path to achieve worthy and inspirational goals on behalf of our nation.”

Smith himself co-sponsored the old version of Posey’s bill, which was rendered null when the 112th Congress ended Jan. 2. He is not a cosponsor of Culberson’s revamped proposal. Any NASA policy bills must be passed by Smith’s committee before the full House, let alone Democrat-controlled Senate, could consider them.