Click the arrow to watch the February 25, 2016 House Science Committee hearing on the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015.
In February 2010, the Obama administration rocked Capitol Hill's space-industrial complex when its Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposed cancelling the failed Constellation program to replace it with the commercial crew program.
Members of Congress howled in outrage, particularly those who represented states and districts with Constellation contracts. One example is the February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing. For more than two hours, members of both parties bashed NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden with falsehoods, claiming the private sector couldn't be trusted. Some alleged that the administration was surrendering space to Russia, China, or some other perceived enemy.
Hysterical rhetoric aside, their anger was all about losing what they thought were guaranteed government jobs in their districts. Typical of the comments was this paranoid statement by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) whose district included employees of Houston's Johnson Space Center:
I've got a couple concerns and questions I'd like to ask you. One of them is, sort of the process with which this decision was made. Because, if you read some media reports, and hear some things in the community, it seemed to be made by a very small cabal, for lack of a better term, of people here in Washington, D.C. I know for a fact that no one at the Johnson Space Center was consulted about the decision to terminate the Constellation. I particularly want to make sure that you were involved in that decision. So I ask you ... I mean, this is the largest cut in the President's budget. Did you hear directly from the President on this? And again, this is important, I gotta go back home and explain to my constituents who — and many of them, in their cases, lose their jobs.
The administration had on its side a series of bad audits Constellation received from the General Accountability Office. The last audit issued in August 2009 concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” citing unsolved technical problems, funding shortfalls and bureaucratic inefficiencies.
When Congress finally passed NASA's Fiscal Year 2011 budget, they agreed to cancel Constellation, but replaced it with another pork project they named the Space Launch System. Critics dubbed it the “Senate Launch System” because it was crafted by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to protect NASA contractor jobs in their states. When Nelson and Hutchison unveiled the rocket design in September 2011, politicians from both parties and both houses lined up at the microphone to take credit for the jobs they'd protected in their districts.
No one said much about what it was to do.
In any case, the space-industrial complex was shocked that someone finally challenged their perceived entitlement to government pork.
Six members of Congress in September 2012 introduced legislation that attempted to seize control of NASA from the executive branch. Under the Space Leadership Act, NASA would be run by a panel comprised mainly of Congressional appointees. The bill was co-sponsored by, among others, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL). Both have NASA space centers in or near their districts.
As I wrote in that blog article, Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution vests "executive power" in "a President of the United States of America." Article I, Section I vests "legislative powers" in a "Congress of the United States." It seems unconstitutional to me for the legislative branch to try to give itself an executive power.
The bill went nowhere, possibly because it was unconstitutional, possibly because the rest of Congress saw it for what it was.
The co-sponsors tried once more. The bill was reintroduced in February 2013, this time titled the “Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2013.” Once again, the agency's budget would be taken away from the Administrator, and determined by a board comprised primarily of Congressional appointees.
That bill died too.
Now Culberson and Posey are trying for a third time, this time with H.R. 2093, the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015.
Once again, they would create a board comprised primarily of Congressional appointees. The board would be required to submit to “the President, the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives, the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate, and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate, a proposed budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the next fiscal year.” The board would also provide the President with a short list of nominees for NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator, from which the President would have no choice but to select appointees.
Not allowing a President to select his or her appointees in itself makes the bill unconstitutional, in my opinion.
As for the budget proposal, in an attempt to make this constitutional the bill would make the board's budget advisory, which brings into question why the board exists in the first place.
With a new presidential administration less than a year away, in my opinion these legislators are afraid that the new President will try to cancel Space Launch System.
None of the candidates in either major party have said much about the government program. Hillary Clinton's space advisor during her 2008 campaign was Lori Garver, who later joined the Obama campaign and was appointed NASA Deputy Administrator in 2009. Garver left NASA in 2013, and since then has been one of the most vocal critics of Space Launch System. Clinton herself often talks about her childhood dream of being an astronaut.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said he's generally supportive of NASA but doesn't offer specifics.
Donald Trump, currently the Republican with the most delegates, twice has said he would end NASA to use the money for transportation infrastructure. In November, Trump told a ten-year old boy he would end NASA to fill potholes.
Ted Cruz (R-TX) currently chairs the Senate space subcommittee. Although he has supported commercial space more than most of his colleagues, he also defends SLS and opposes NASA spending on earth science and climate change research.
Marco Rubio (R-FL) has Kennedy Space Center in his state. Because he's not a member of the Senate space authorization or appropriations committees, he's not in a position to significantly influence NASA legislation. Like most politicians, he'll say nice things about NASA but has little specific legislation to prove it.
This bill, like its predecessors, will die in the House for lack of support.
But it shows just how far certain members of Congress will go to protect their pork, such as ignoring the Constitution.
UPDATE March 1, 2016 — Space policy analyst John Logsdon was interviewed February 26 by Radio Sputnik about statements made at this hearing by former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and general topics of U.S. space policy.
Click the arrow to listen to the 7½ minute interview. Audio source: Radio Sputnik.