Editorial: Gone Fishing

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U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith’s call for a probe of what his office characterizes as the “politicization” of NASA by President Barack Obama’s administration has the hallmarks of a politically motivated fishing expedition.

In an Oct. 5 letter to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, the Texas Republican, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and sits on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, cited a survey of agency managers by the consulting firm 4-D Systems that contained “disturbing insights about a dysfunctional and hostile work environment created by Obama Administration political appointees toward career civil servants.” As for specifics, Rep. Smith cites two themes contained in the report’s executive summary: Political appointees are focused on Democratic Party goals rather than national goals, and there appears to be little trust or dialogue between career civil servants and political appointees on major issues facing the space agency.

The latter should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent any time in or around government: There is always tension between those who spend much if not all of their careers with a single federal agency and those who come and go with each new presidential administration. This ever-present dynamic is bound to be elevated when an administration is seeking to take NASA’s centerpiece activity — human spaceflight — in a direction that not only is new and therefore disconcerting but also raises questions about the role of some of the agency’s key centers, something that was never in doubt under the Constellation program the president sought to dismantle.

It’s quite possible, even likely, that a perception exists among some career civil servants that politics is affecting NASA decisions, but that’s always going to be the case no matter who’s in the White House. A big part of the reason, aside from the fact that White House appointees in Washington are by nature more politically minded than managers at NASA centers, is that the distinction between national and political goals is often subjective.

A perfect example is NASA’s climate change research program, which Democrats generally regard as an important national pursuit even as many Republicans dismiss it as a wasteful preoccupation of liberals. This longstanding political fault line erupted in 2006 when a prominent NASA climate scientist complained of being muzzled by political appointees of then-President George W. Bush, a charge that was later substantiated by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General.

There is nothing so specific in the executive summary of the 4-D Systems report cited by Rep. Smith, who nonetheless asked the inspector general to investigate “potentially illegal acts” by NASA political appointees, such as improperly steering contract awards to support Democratic Party goals. The lawmaker said NASA forced his hand by refusing to hand over specific inputs to the 4-D Systems survey from senior agency managers.

It’s difficult to fathom how Rep. Smith would see mistrust of political appointees among some career civil servants, particularly at a time of unusual tumult within the space agency, as an indicator of possible malfeasance on the behalf of |Democrats.

NASA did manage to irk some Republican lawmakers when it steered money allocated for the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch infrastructure projects in the electoral swing state of Florida. Not surprisingly, Florida lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saw nothing untoward about using that money to modernize the site from which the heavy-lift SLS would operate.

But the point is, it’s possible to read political motivations into any number of large agency initiatives. These include the congressionally mandated SLS, which has been championed most ardently by lawmakers whose states stand to benefit most from the multibillion-dollar project: Florida, Alabama, Utah and Texas.

Politics is a fact of life at NASA, as it is for any federal agency. Were that not the case, NASA would have closed — or be in the process of closing — at least one of its centers by now. Much of that infrastructure was designed to support the NASA that existed four or more decades ago; it endures, at substantial cost, because lawmakers of both political parties will not stand for the closure of a major center in their state.

A probe based on rumblings of discontent within NASA stands little chance of catching crooks, but there’s always a chance it will uncover information or allegations that embarrass the White House. The one certain outcome, unfortunately, is it will occupy NASA resources that otherwise could be targeted at the waste, fraud and abuse that routinely do occur at the space agency and cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars each year.