NASA Restructuring Legislation Given Little Chance of Passage

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of Republican lawmakers on Sept. 20 introduced legislation that would revamp NASA’s leadership structure, creating an 11-member board empowered to recommend candidates for NASA administrator, who would serve a 10-year term.

Space policy experts here said the bill stands little chance of becoming law, however.

The bill is spearheaded by Rep. John Culberson of Texas and cosponsored by Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Bill Posey of Florida, Pete Olson and Lamar Smith of Texas and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. Culberson, Wolf, Posey and Olson unveiled the bill at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol here.

“We have filed this bill today to make NASA less political and more professional by modeling their internal leadership after the FBI and the National Science Foundation,” Culberson said in prepared remarks.

A House aide said the lawmakers wanted to unveil their bill now so the proposal would not be overlooked in a busy U.S. presidential election year. At press time Sept. 21, Congress was set to adjourn until after the Nov. 6 presidential election.

Currently, the NASA administrator is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate; administrators and their deputies serve at the president’s pleasure. If the Culberson bill becomes law, the new NASA board of directors would allow the U.S. president to choose an administrator from among three finalists proposed by the board. The board, whose members would serve three-year terms, would also propose candidates for the NASA deputy administrator and chief financial officer posts.

The White House and majority leaders in the House and Senate would each appoint three NASA board members; the House and Senate minority leaders would appoint one member each. Anyone who works for a NASA contractor would be barred from serving, except for “scientists employed by or representing colleges, universities, and other not-for-profit organizations,” according to the bill.

Washington insiders privately declared the legislation dead on arrival, primarily because a U.S. president is highly unlikely to cede his prerogative to set NASA policy and appoint its leadership. The management structure proposed by the Republican lawmakers is more appropriate for regulation of law enforcement agencies, where there needs to be some degree of visible separation from politics, than agencies like NASA that have large procurement budgets, they said.

The legislation, the policy experts said, reflects frustration among lawmakers at the stops and starts on major NASA programs over the years, in particular U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Moon-bound Constellation initiative. Constellation was hatched by the administration of former President George W. Bush and approved by two different Congresses. By the time Obama canceled Constellation roughly a year after taking office, NASA had spent roughly $10 billion on the effort.

While that frustration is understandable, experts said, Constellation was underfunded from the beginning and likely would have been unaffordable regardless of who was in office.