Advocates cite Morhard’s Senate experience as key strength for NASA post

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LONDON — A week after the White House announced its intent to nominate a Senate aide to the post of NASA deputy administrator, reaction remains muted, but some supporters say his Senate experience will be an asset at the agency.

The White House formally submitted the nomination of James Morhard as NASA deputy administrator to the Senate July 17, five days after the Trump administration announced its intent to do so. The Senate has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for his nomination.

Morhard’s nomination surprised many in the space community because of his lack of space experience. Morhard is currently the deputy sergeant-at-arms for the Senate, overseeing administrative matters regarding the legislative body. His previous positions include serving as a staff director and chief of staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Morhard didn’t emerge as a leading candidate for the position until days before the White House announced his nomination. That, coupled with his lack of interaction with the space field, contrasts strongly with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was well known as an active member of Congress on space policy issues, and was a leading candidate for months prior to being formally nominated in September 2017.

Bridenstine’s familiarity, and the long lead time prior to the nomination, meant that members of Congress, space industry organizations and others were quick to react, positively or negatively, when the nomination was announced, even though it was released on the Friday night of the Labor Day holiday weekend.

By contrast, members of Congress and industry organizations have had little to say about Morhard’s nomination. A spokesperson for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who led the opposition to Bridenstine’s nomination in part because of Bridenstine’s lack of technical experience, said July 13 that Nelson was travelling when the nomination was announced and couldn’t immediately comment, and hasn’t since provided a follow-up comment.

Morhard, though, does have his advocates. “Jim Morhard is cut from the same cloth as outstanding NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe,” said Mark Albrecht, former president of International Launch Services and, before that, executive secretary of the National Space Council.

O’Keefe, like Morhard, had no space industry experience when he was nominated in the fall of 2001 by President George W. Bush. He did have significant fiscal expertise, including serving as comptroller of the Defense Department and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. O’Keefe had earlier served on the Senate Appropriations Committee staff. O’Keefe and Morhard have a more tragic link as well: they both survived the August 2010 plane crash in Alaska that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens, for whom both Morhard and O’Keefe had worked.

Albrecht argued that Morhard’s experience on the appropriations committee staff would serve him well at NASA. “His knowledge of programs and budgeting and execution is a perfect match for the needs of NASA in meeting the bold goals for space President Trump has vigorously charted,” he said. “His deep knowledge of complex R&D programs as Senate appropriations staff director will help NASA achieve results and restore American leadership in human exploration and space science.”

Some advocates of Morhard have pointed to his time working as staff director of what is now known as the commerce, justice and science appropriations subcommittee, whose current oversight includes NASA. However, at the time he was staff director the subcommittee’s jurisdiction didn’t include NASA, whose budget was overseen by a separate subcommittee on veterans affairs, housing and urban development, and independent agencies. The current subcommittee structure took form in the mid-2000s, around the time Morhard left the committee.

Even without that direct experience with NASA, supporters of Morhard’s nomination say he’s well-equipped to help run the agency. “Jim has spent years reviewing hundreds of programs and budgets of departments, agencies, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms. Many people in government and industry only see a few dozen programs during their entire career, and rarely an entire department or agency budget,” said John Young, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology.

“Jim’s experiences provide him great judgment skills about budgets, program execution, acquisition strategies and program management plans,” Young added. “Jim is more than qualified for the position, and he will be very helpful to NASA Administrator Bridenstine and the entire NASA team.”