Former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s surprise announcement April 3 that he will not seek another term in Congress comes at an inopportune time for NASA, which is in the midst of yet another budget crisis.
Whatever one might think about the Texas Republican’s politics or the accusations that led to his downfall, no one can deny that he delivered on behalf of the U.S. space agency. When it appeared certain, for example, that NASA would not get the funding it needed in 2005 to keep U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration on schedule, Rep. DeLay, who was still House majority leader at the time, almost single-handedly saved the day, securing more money for the space agency than even the White House had requested. The following year he played a critical role in getting full funding for NASA even as other agencies took cuts to help defray the costs of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But just as investors are wise not to put all their money in one place, NASA should not count on any one person to save its budgetary bacon year after year. If that was not clear in September when Rep. DeLay, under indictment in Texas, stepped down as House majority leader, it is now.
Rep. DeLay remains a member of the House Appropriations Committee, but he could depart as early as May, so his ability to help NASA with its 2007 budget seems questionable. That means NASA will be counting on other stalwarts on the appropriations panel, such as Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who’s in his sixth term and slowly climbing the congressional seniority ladder. In the future, the agency has other potential champions, including Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who is considered a candidate for the appropriations panel when the new Congress convenes in January — assuming, of course, he retains his seat and the Republicans hold onto the majority in the House.
But the message in Rep. DeLay’s departure is clear: NASA cannot stake its fortunes to those of any one person or political party in Congress. The agency, along with its contractors and other stakeholders, must cast as wide a net as possible to broaden its base of congressional support.