Bridenstine confirmation hearing
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) at his Nov. 1 confirmation hearing to become NASA administrator. The Senate Commerce Committee voted on party lines Nov. 8 to advance his nomination to the full Senate. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

WASHINGTON — Several members of the House Science Committee used a hearing on NASA’s latest budget proposal March 7 to criticize the Senate for not acting on the nomination of one of their colleagues to lead the agency.

Testifying before the House space subcommittee on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal was Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who has led the agency on an interim basis for more than 13 months. That is the longest NASA has been led by an acting administrator in the agency’s nearly 60-year history.

The White House nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who serves on the space subcommittee, in September to be administrator. The Senate Commerce Committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote in November. That process was repeated in January when the Senate returned the nomination under its rules, and the administration resubmitted it.

The full Senate has yet to take up the nomination. Congressional sources say that Bridenstine’s nomination lacks the needed 50 votes for passage. All 49 Senate Democrats are opposed to the nomination, as is reportedly Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who stated concerns about the nomination when it was announced in September but has not recently commented on it. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has also been said to be skeptical of the nomination, still absent from the Senate because of cancer treatment, there are only 49 yes votes.

Despite the partisan divide, one committee member said that failure of the Senate to take up the nomination was not one of Republicans versus Democrats. “This is not, however, a product of partisanship,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) during the hearing.

“This is the product of a couple of senators who are bullheaded and a couple of senators who are basically watching out for their own little domain rather than what’s good for the overall country,” he said, arguring that those unnamed senators “demonstrated an arrogance that is unacceptable.”

Other members of the committee also expressed their disappointment on a lack of action on Bridenstine’s nomination, although not quite as stridently. “I hope that the next time we’re sitting here Administrator Bridenstine will be in the chair,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) “It’s an embarrassment to the process that that hasn’t happened yet.”

“In the environment we work in, the resources that the agency needs in the long term, having a director nominated and confirmed by the United States Senate from the administration is critically important,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Even a Democratic member of the committee expressed support for Bridenstine’s nomination. “Is it time to have somebody permanent in that position? Is it hard as an acting administrator to move the agency forward?” asked Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.). Perlmutter is one of the few Democratic members of Congress to publicly support Bridenstine’s nomination.

Lightfoot said that he hasn’t experienced problems working with the administration despite leading the agency on an interim basis. “For the past year I’ve had no trouble having access to the people I need to have access to,” he said.

That included, he said, representing NASA on the National Space Council at its two public meetings since being reestablished last summer. “I haven’t had to sit in the back row. I’ve sat right at the table.”

However, he acknowledged the agency would benefit from having a permanent administrator. “It is always of value to have the person the president wants in this position,” he said. “That would be important for us all from that standpoint.”

The criticism that committee members expressed about the stalled nomination did not extend to Lightfoot. “You have been an adequate acting administrator,” Banks told Lightfoot, while Lucas said he had done “an outstanding job.”

That extended stint as acting administrator has also earned Lightfoot a place in the history books. “I’d like to congratulate you, Mr. Lightfoot, on once again today setting a new record as the longest serving acting director of NASA,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “I hope you’ll have an extension of that record tomorrow.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...