Boehlert Legislation Would Address “Brain Drain” at Space Agency

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics today approved by voice vote Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert’s (R-NY) legislation to address the “brain drain” at NASA. H.R. 1085, the NASA Flexibility Act of 2003, would give NASA more flexibility to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce. A summary of the legislation is attached to this release.

Subcommittee Democrats, led by Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), opposed the legislation, arguing that the Committee should wait until the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issues its report before addressing the workforce issue.

“We need to act as soon as possible to assist NASA at this critical time,” said Boehlert. “I think it’s a simple and obvious fact that NASA needs to improve its ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Within five years, a quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire. That point has been made in numerous reports by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), including the latest report, issued in January, not long before the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.”

Boehlert continued, “I know that my Democrat colleagues suggested that we wait until Admiral Gehman reports before taking up this bill. I heartily disagree. Admiral Gehman’s report is not likely to say anything specific about workforce reforms – that’s hardly the Gehman Board’s focus. If anything, Admiral Gehman will simply reiterate what we already know — that NASA needs to do more to attract and retain the best possible workforce. We can begin to help NASA do that today, by approving H.R. 1085.”

The Committee accepted a Manager’s amendment, offered by Mr. Boehlert, which reflected compromises reached between Boehlert, the Government Reform and Oversight Committee (which shares jurisdiction over the legislation), NASA and the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFTPE). Yesterday, IFTPE, the largest union at NASA, endorsed the legislation.

Gregory Junemann, President of IFPTE, sent Boehlert a letter saying, “We are extremely appreciative of the candid and constructive dialog between you, your staff, and IFPTE over the last few months. We believe the final outcome of the collaborative working relationship between your office and IFTPE has led to a legislative proposal that will better serve the agency, its employees, and the Nation. IFPTE is especially pleased with the rigorous notification, planning, and monitoring portions of the bill, with the inclusion of financial incentives reserved almost exclusively for the recruitment and retention of rank and file technical staff. In addition, IFPTE applauds you for ensuring that the proposed Industry Exchange program not be included in your bill.”  

H.R. 1085 will be taken up before the full Science Committee before the August Congressional recess.


  • Greater Flexibility in Civil Service Law to Address NASA’s Critical Needs:  Authorizes NASA greater flexibility to recruit, retain, and restructure its workforce to address the agency’s critical needs. 
  • Vigorous Congressional Oversight:  Before exercising any of the authorities provided under this Act, the NASA Administrator must submit to Congress and all NASA employees a detailed Workforce Plan developed in consultation with the Office of Personnel Management. Directs NASA to submit annual performance plans and specific information on the use of these workforce authorities to Congress for the next 10 years. After 6 years, NASA is to submit to Congress an evaluation of how the authorities exercised under this Act addressed NASA’s critical needs.
  • Higher Bonuses:  Under current law, recruitment and relocation bonuses are authorized up to 25 percent of an employee’s annual salary. This Act allows NASA to award recruitment, redesignation, and relocation bonuses up to 50 percent of an employee’s annual salary multiplied by an agreed-upon service period (up to 4 years) if the position addresses a critical need. 
  • Higher Retention Bonuses:  Authorizes NASA to pay retention bonuses up to 50 percent of an employee’s annual salary if the employee’s position addresses a critical need. Current law authorizes retention bonuses only up to 25 percent of an employee’s annual salary without locality adjustments.
  • Science & Technology Scholarships: Authorizes NASA to set-up a “scholarship for service” program where NASA would pay for up to 4 years of undergraduate or graduate school education. In exchange, the student is obligated to work for NASA after graduation. Authorizes $10 million per year.
  • Qualifications Pay:  This section allows NASA to adjust the pay to any step within an employee’s grade in the General Schedule (GS) for employees with superior qualifications and additional duties.
  • Higher Buyout Authority:  Authorizes NASA to pay Voluntary Separation Incentive (VSI) payments up to 50 percent of an employee’s annual salary if several strict conditions are met. Current law allows VSI payments up to $25,000.
  • Term Appointments:  Authorizes NASA to make term appointments for up to six years. Current law limits term appointments to a four-year term. Allows term appointments to be converted to career-conditional civil service appointments under strict conditions. 
  • Pay Authority for Critical Positions:  Authorizes the NASA Administrator to fix the rate of pay up to the level of the Vice-President’s pay ($198,600 per year) for up to ten employees. Such employees must have expertise of an extremely high level in scientific, technical, professional, or administrative fields.
  • Enhanced Demonstration Project:  Authorizes NASA to conduct a personnel demonstration project for 8,000 employees rather than only 5,000 employees authorized in current law. NASA employs 18,000 civil servants.
  • Distinguished Scholars:  Allows NASA to directly hire recent graduates from undergraduate or graduate school with high grade point averages. Veteran’s preferences still apply.
  • Assignments under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA): Allows NASA to grant extensions of four years to personnel serving in IPA assignments. Currently, only two-year extensions are allowed after an initial two-year assignment. Thus, an IPA assignment may last a total of six years under the new authority versus only four years under current law.
  • Limited Senior Executive Service (SES) Appointments:  Allows NASA to temporarily fill career reserved SES positions due to death, illness, training, or special-tasking of the employee previously holding that position.
  • Travel Expenses for New Appointees:  Allows NASA to compensate newly hired employees for certain travel and transportation expenses that current employees are already eligible to receive.
  • Annual leave enhancements:  This section provides the authority for new appointees to NASA with no prior Federal service to accrue leave at the rate normally allowed for a Federal employee of similar experience.