Nelson Tells Blakey: "Put a Fire Under Your Executives"

Nelson Tells Blakey: "Put a Fire Under Your Executives"

A Senate hearing yesterday on the economic impacts of the government shutdown was mostly partisan politics, but Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) used it as an opportunity to criticize the aerospace industry for not working harder to convince the House Republican leadership to end the stalemate.

The hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee provided a public platform for Democratic Senators to criticize Republicans (mostly House Republicans) for the situation, and for Republican Senators to either agree that it is a dismal state of affairs requiring negotiations or to defend recent House actions to pass piecemeal funding bills for specific parts of the government that the Senate should take up.

Marion Blakey, President of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), were among the witnesses.  Their prepared statements addressed the impacts of the shutdown on NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government scientific research activities.   The ensuing discussion barely touched on those topics, however, with more attention paid to issues covered by other witnesses, such as the impact on the National Transportation Safety Board, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and commercial fishing.

The most significant space-related discussion was between Nelson and Blakey.  Nelson told Blakey that he had talked with “your CEOs” and asked if they had “talked to the members of Congress who are causing the shutdown” and “they haven’t.”  Blakey replied that she as well as a delegation of small businesses have been meeting with members in both the House and Senate about the impact and while she could not speak for the executives of all the AIA members, “they are spending a great deal of time making certain that people understand that there are both commercial effects … [and] competitiveness issues.”  She then added that she had been invited to the White House for a meeting that afternoon about the impact.

Nelson was not assuaged.   “You do not have to convince the White House,” he admonished her, adding that he had met “with two of your CEOs last week” and “they were not ready to step up and go talk to the [House] leadership” about the shutdown, but would if a debt default appeared likely.  “Well, default is in another half a week,” Nelson declared.  “It’s been a week and a half that we’ve been in shutdown.  So I would implore you all to activate your people.  Now where — where are the people that are so affected at the Johnson Space Center in Houston?  Where are they going to the congressional delegation and talking to them?  And I could go through the NASA centers.  … But you need to put a fire under your executives.”

Nelson’s decision to single out Johnson Space Center (JSC) probably is because it is represented by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), one of the two Republican Senators viewed as initiating the series of events that led to the shutdown.  (Senator Mike Lee of Utah is the other.)  Nelson presumably was urging executives of companies that do business with JSC, rather than furloughed NASA workers, to talk to their congressional delegations.   His main argument was that the aerospace industry is not doing enough to lobby Congress to resolve the impasse.

The majority of other questions directed to Blakey were about aviation, though a few other issues, such as launching commercial satellites and the impact on NOAA’s weather satellites, were raised.  Blakey addressed a broad range of civil space issues in her written statement.  Regarding NASA, she stated that industry’s work on the Space Launch System, Orion, and the James Webb Space Telescope “has been largely unaffected” because of “smart planning by industry and NASA,” but there are concerns about the commercial crew program.  She warned that because NASA facilities are closed, support contractors are not able to do their jobs.  Some employees of larger companies are being forced to take unplanned vacations, she explained, while smaller businesses are keeping their workforces together at their own risk.  She also noted that the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is partially shut down, which could lead to delays in issuing launch licenses.  Though not related to the shutdown, she also used her statement to argue for extending third party indemnification for commercial space launch companies, which expires at the end of the year. 

Leshner was asked about the impact of the shutdown on young scientists and on the U.S. scientific enterprise overall.  He stressed that to keep young scientists in the field they need to have some degree of certainty about getting grants and that there will be continuity for long-term studies:  “for a young person to think that their career will be stop-start-stop-start will make it extremely difficult to see real accomplishment over time because science has to be continuous.  We have to be continually working on whatever the problem is or we lose it.”   He added that time-series studies are totally dependent on continuity and if the study is interrupted “you might as well not have done the earlier part.”  His message was that the country’s “beleaguered” scientific enterprise is already under a great deal of stress and vulnerable to losing its competitive edge globally, and the government shutdown is compounding those problems.  In his written statement, he noted the impact on scientific research at several agencies, including NASA, such as the grounding of the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and the loss of data from ground-based astronomical observations at NSF’s Very Long Baseline Array, which is shut down.

The prepared statements of all the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing on available on the committee’s website.


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