Thursday afternoon four Republican members of the House of Representatives formally unveiled legislation that they claim will depoliticize NASA. The “Space Leadership Preservation Act” (sometimes called just the Space Leadership Act) would make a number of changes to how NASA is run, including the establishment of a board of directors and a fixed ten-year term for the NASA administrator. Those and other changes, the bill’s sponsors argue, would provide stability to an organization that has gone though changes in recent years that have resulted in canceled programes and wasted money.
“We’re introducing this legislation today to restore the NASA we know and love,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the lead sponsor for the bill, at a press conference outside the US Capitol. “The NASA that we know is capable of maintaining that world leadership in space exploration, if we would just get the politics out of NASA, allow them to do what they do best, to allow NASA to be led by the scientists, the engineers, the astronauts, the professionals that have made that agency an extraordinary place.”
The legislation would establish a Board of Directors whose members would be appointed by the White House and Congress. The board would be responsible for developing a budget proposal for NASA that would be delivered simultaneously to both the White House and Congress, and also selecting nominees for the posts of administrator, deputy administrator, and CFO. The President would select one of the nominees provided by the board for those posts; the administrator, under this model, would serve a single ten-year term. NASA would also have power to perform multi-year procurements for launch vehicles and spacecraft under the bill.
“The status quo has to change,” said co-sponsor Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). The bill takes elements from other agencies—like the ten-year administrator’s term from the FBI, and the board of directors from the NSF—to provide that change, he argued. The bill “is an effort to start a national conversation on this whereby we can preserve, energize, and enhance the space program.”
This approach, the bill’s sponsors argued, would give NASA stability and protect it from sudden changes in policies; several cited the Obama Administration’s move to cancel the Constellation program in 2010 as one example. “The administration’s canceling of the Constellation program, after investing nearly $9 billion and five years of development, is the perfect example of why these changes are needed,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), a co-sponsor of the bill. He added that bill would ensure that “recent success stories with commercial crew programs will continue on a positive trajectory.”
The bill “could be called the ‘Neil Armstrong Leadership Act,'” suggested Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), citing the late Apollo 11’s concerns after the current administration sought to cancel Constellation. “Neil Armstrong became outraged. This bill takes cares of the problems Neil Armstrong was so concerned about.”
But why introduce this bill now, so late in the current Congress? The House is wrapping up work today and expected to then go on recess until after the November elections. The limited time available once members return is likely to be devoted to dealing with the FY2013 budget and seeking a solution to avoid the automatic spending cuts that would go into effect in January under sequestration.
“We are offering the bill today because we want this, I hope, to become a part of the debate in the presidential campaign,” said Culberson. He added that that they’ve been promised a hearing by House Science Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX). “We’ve encountered wide-ranging and very deep support for the concepts behind this bill.” He added that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) is “keenly interested” in supporting the bill in the Senate. Wolf, meanwhile, held open the possibility of the bill becoming law “by March or April of next year” when the continuing resolution that will fund the government for first six months of fiscal year 2013 ends.
But the prospects of the bill’s passage, or its signing by the President, remain unclear. For all the talk about getting “the politics out of NASA”, all of the current co-sponsors of the bill are Republicans. Another Houston-area member, Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), told the Houston Chronicle that while he was interested in the legislation, he had not been contacted during its development. “It sounded like they just wanted Republicans on it; they didn’t want it to be bipartisan,” he told the Chronicle.
It’s also unclear whether any president, regardless of party, would support a bill that transfers some the of executive branch’s power to Congress. Eight of the 11 members of the proposed board would be selected by Congress (three by the majority and one by the minority in each house), giving it a majority over the selection of nominees for administrator and in the development of the budget. Congress would also get to see the resulting budget submission, which today, as for most other agencies, goes only to the Office of Management and Budget. (OMB would still be free to alter it in the administration’s overall budget proposal, but Congress would be able to see what changed.) What would a president of either party gain by agreeing to a proposal like that?