Science Committee Democrats today opposed passage of H.R. 1085, the NASA Workforce bill, in the Committee’s markup of the legislation.  Led by Ranking Democrat Ralph Hall (D-TX) and Ranking Space Subcommittee Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), Democrats argued that moving a workforce bill prior to receipt of the Gehman Board report was premature and unnecessary. Gehman’s report is due in August and the full House cannot take up a NASA workforce bill until sometime in September.  More importantly, H.R. 1085 fails to deal meaningfully with either NASA’s safety culture or its vision for human space flight.

Mr. Hall opined that, “This was a very difficult day.  I have worked on NASA issues for over twenty years and I care deeply about its programs and its workers.  The process by which we rushed to move this bill, and to defeat a series of amendments that any fair observer would say could only enhance the bill, disappointed and surprised me.  I think we are doing too little, compared to what the CAIB may recommend, too soon, since we could wait five weeks and come back and do this with the Board report in hand.  In any event, I am convinced that we will have to revisit all of these issues to build a safer NASA.”

“Waiting to have the Gehman report in hand could only have strengthened the Committee’s hand in moving a bill,” commented Mr. Gordon.  “It is always better to have more information rather than less when you are re-writing laws.”  Mr. Hall added that, “The bill we took up today shows no learning from the Shuttle accident for it was essentially the same bill that Administrator O’Keefe was pushing last autumn.  We need workforce policies that are focused on keeping the workforce and our astronauts safe.  The scope of the bill as offered by the Chairman is too narrow in that safety seems to only be addressed as an afterthought.”

Several Democratic Members offered amendments to try to improve the bill anticipating Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) issues.  Significantly, Mr. Hall offered an amendment that would have:  strengthened the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance; started NASA on the road to developing a viable crew escape system for the Shuttle; instructed NASA to certify that its use of “buy outs” as provided in the bill would not result in the loss of critical skills for the Shuttle or Station programs; and barred any further contracting out of NASA functions to the private sector until NASA responds to and implements the CAIB recommendations.  All of these elements were aimed at enhancing the health and safety of the NASA workforce and astronaut corps.  Mr. Forbes (R-VA) raised a point of order against the amendment, and Chairman Boehlert ruled the amendment out of order as non-germane to the bill.

Mr. Gordon, who has served as ranking member on the Space Subcommittee since 1995, offered an amendment that would have compelled NASA to carry out its long planned and recently suspended Strategic Resources Review to determine if they have the right mix of people, equipment, and facilities for the missions they wish to carry out.  This would be especially valuable in the wake of receiving the Gehman report next month.  “Despite all the technology, space flight is a human enterprise.  Getting the mix of people at NASA to fit the strategic goals of the agency is the best way to build a safer agency.”  Mr. Gordon withdrew his amendment with assurances from the Chairman that his concern would be addressed in the report accompanying the bill.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) offered an amendment that would have compelled NASA to establish clear human space flight goals.  “I don’t know how you explore if you don’t have goals and destinations,” noted Mr. Lampson.  “The best and brightest can’t be attracted just by money, they have to be inspired to join by the promise of challenging work.  As it stands, NASA remains adrift with no clear purpose and all the business school theories and legislation in the world won’t build the kind of strong, worldclass workforce NASA needs if young scientists and engineers aren’t interested in the work.”  Mr. Lampson’s amendment was defeated on a party line vote.

It is widely believed that the CAIB report, scheduled for release on August 26, will address the balance of talents and responsibilities between the NASA workforce and their contractors, with implications for hiring, promotion and retention policies at the agency.  The report is expected to recognize that workforce policies cannot be separated from safety issues. 

In other amendments:

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) successfully offered an amendment that would bar political appointees from receiving any of the bonuses authorized in the bill. 

Mr. Miller was defeated in his effort to cut back the size of the demonstration authority granted to the Administrator from 8,000 employees to the currently authorized 5,000.  Mr. Miller observed that NASA has never used its existing authority for a management demonstration program so it is hard to see the rationale for increasing the authority.  He also noted the coincidence between the size of the non-union NASA workforce and the number of employees authorized for “demonstration” projects:  both are 8000.  The amendment was defeated on a party-line 20-20 tie vote.

Mr. Miller also offered an amendment to require the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct an independent assessment of NASA’s use of its existing workforce flexibility authorities before the new authorities would come into effect.  Mr. Miller argued that NASA has never made a case that they have used existing workforce flexibilities, let alone demonstrated the need for expanded authorities.  The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was successful in offering an amendment requiring NASA to report back to the Committee on how it will implement its workforce flexibility authorities without compromising safety.  This was accepted by the Chairman and passed on a voice vote.

Ms. Jackson Lee also offered an amendment reinstating the Minority University and Research Education programs as a Division after it was demoted to program status by the Administration last year.  The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added a section to the bill that expressed the sense of Congress that NASA should continue to work to attract a diverse workforce.  This amendment passed on voice vote.