DeMint Departure Opens Ranking Spot on Senate Commerce Committee

DeMint Departure Opens Ranking Spot on Senate Commerce Committee

Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) surprise announcement that he is leaving the Senate to run a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, could impact NASA and NOAA by opening up the top Republican spot on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchsion (R-TX), who is currently the top Republican (or “ranking member”) on that committee, is retiring at the end of the year.  Based on seniority, DeMint was in line to replace her.   That committee sets policy and recommends funding for NASA and Hutchison has big shoes to fill in the NASA policy arena.   She and Senator Blll Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the subcommittee on science and space, have worked closely together for the past several years.  They partnered in writing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, for example.  She has diligently insisted that NASA follow the intent of the law by funding the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft in accordance with the Act’s directions rather than favoring President Obama’s commercial crew initiative.  

Senate committee assignments generally follow seniority rules, and DeMint was next in line.  Elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving three terms in the House, he was reelected in 2010 and is closely associated with the Tea Party, which made major gains in Congress that year.    The Republican governor of South Carolina will appoint his successor.  She already has vowed to choose someone with the same conservative political philosophy.

It was not clear what impact he might have on space policy.   It is not one of the topics on which he focused his Senate career.  One of his passions is cutting government spending, which might not have boded well for space programs.

With his departure, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) becomes the heir apparent.   That does not mean he will take the job — he may prefer other committee assignments — but if he does, he would at least have some constituent interest in the space program.   Mississippi is home to Stennis Space Center and a fellow Republican Mississippian, Rep. Steve Palazzo, chairs the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The Senate Commerce Committee undoubtedly will continue its oversight of NASA programs, as well as NOAA’s, in the next Congress, but whether it will try to pass related legislation is an open question.   The 2010 NASA Authorization Act recommended funding levels for NASA through the end of FY2013, the current fiscal year.   Many assume that a new authorization bill will be drafted next year to authorize funds for FY2014 and perhaps beyond with the Senate Commerce Committee a key player once again.  However, if Congress is satisfied with the policy aspects of the existing Act – which remain law permanently unless repealed or modified by a new law– it could forego funding recommendations and leave the money aspects to the appropriations committees, which actually provide the funding to agencies.

The bottom line is that it too early to tell what difference DeMint’s departure will make for space programs, but it is worth watching.

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