Senate Republicans Claim Biden Administration Politicizing NASA with Diversity, Climate Initiatives

Senate Republicans Claim Biden Administration Politicizing NASA with Diversity, Climate Initiatives

Two top Senate Republicans on NASA’s authorizing committee slammed NASA today for following Biden Administration directives on diversity and requiring contractors to report greenhouse gas emissions. Senators Ted Cruz and Eric Schmitt charged that NASA is becoming politicized. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a member of the committee for many years when he was in the Senate, pushed back, insisting NASA is managed on a non-partisan basis.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee. at a hearing on NASA’s FY2024 budget request. May 16, 2023. Screengrab.

Cruz (R-TX) is the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Schmitt (R-MO) is Ranking Member of its Space and Science Subcommittee.

NASA is often cited as one of the few agencies that enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress. That is true generally, but climate change research has been an exception in the past. Partisan clashes over funding NASA’s earth science program date back to the 1990s, but have been quiescent in recent years.

Today’s discord was not about earth science research per se, however. Instead Cruz and Schmitt criticized NASA for advancing a federal regulation that requires contractors to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, the risks they pose, and submit reduction targets. Cruz claimed that would increase costs to contractors that would be passed on to NASA, reducing the money available to NASA to pursue its core missions.

“Earlier this year, my Republican colleagues joined me in sending a letter to you, asking you to rescind this proposed rule. Your response to that letter was, to put it mildly, underwhelming. I suspect had you received such an answer when you were sitting in this spot as this committee’s Ranking Member, you would not have been especially pleased. You know one of the big reasons you and I were successful in crafting and passing substantive, bipartisan space legislation when you were in the Senate is that we largely avoided injecting politics into the mix. I am concerned that NASA may be straying from that approach, but I’m sure we will be talking more with you as the congressional budgeting process progresses.” Sen. Ted Cruz

Cruz and Schmitt bore in on that issue along with NASA’s $22 million request for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity.

After congratulating NASA for all of its successes in the past year including the Artemis I mission, Cruz said the diversity funding “has little to do with winning what you have called a space race between the free world and China.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO), Ranking Member of the Space and Science Subcommittee, Senate Commerce Committee, at a May 16, 2023 hearing on NASA’s FY 2024 budget request. Screengrab.

Schmitt went further.

“I strongly disagree with this Administration’s obsession with misguided woke policies related to climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion. Administrator Nelson, America cannot afford to take its eye off the ball with the rising threat of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. There is simply too much at stake. President Xi and the CCP are hell bent on dominating us on every front. We must be laser-like focused on our approach and I can assure you that China has no interest in out-DEIing us and they’re not intimidated at all by this divisive radical policy that’s found its way into this budget.” Sen. Eric Schmitt

Nelson strongly agreed with Schmitt on the need to stay ahead of China, but didn’t address the DEI issue.

As for the greenhouse gas reporting requirement, Nelson explained it’s part of a draft proposed rulemaking put out by the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council that is still in the comment phase and applies to NASA, DOD, and the General Services Administration (GSA). The draft includes a provision that would allow the NASA Administrator to waive any requirements with regard to small businesses. He told Cruz that “I would ask you to continue with your advocacy of that position, but look at the details in the proposed rulemaking.”

Cruz asserted that the rule “will increase costs among federal agencies across the board by almost $4 billion, a significant portion of which will likely be borne by NASA” and “remove dollars that otherwise would be available to go to the Moon and Mars. … Just how much are ya’ll driving up costs because of the political mandate from the White House?”

Specifically he wanted to how much it will cost for NASA to replace 2,600 traditional combustion vehicles with electric vehicles. Nelson said he’d get Cruz an answer, “but if you’re suggesting that we should abandon the entire national effort to move toward electric vehicles, I would say that there is a significant difference of opinion about that.” Cruz responded that he wants NASA to stay focused on getting to the Moon and Mars and stay out of partisan politics.

Cruz: “You and I have worked very hard to keep NASA out of partisan politics and I would encourage you energetically to continue that work because we have a Republican House of Representatives now. If NASA is seen as partisan that is very bad for space and space exploration. So I hope NASA will continue its tradition of staying out of those battles.”

Nelson: “And I assure you NASA is, and will be if I’m around, not only bipartisan but non-partisan. And it will continue that way. Now, the reality is Senator Cruz, and you know I love you, it’s a fact that we have political differences and it was on display in this room over a number of years. But I can guarantee you that NASA is being run in a non-partisan way.”

Cruz and Nelson served in the Senate together from January 2013-January 2019.

The other members of the committee steered clear of those topics, focusing their questions on issues closer to home.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), who chairs the Space and Science subcommittee, honed in on NASA’s programs to find and track comets and asteroids — Near Earth Objects (NEOs) — and defend Earth from any headed in this direction.

Amy Mainzer, Survey Director for the NEO Surveyor mission, is at the University of Arizona. NASA proposed a significant cut to NEO Surveyor last year and although Congress restored some of the money in the final appropriations bill, the launch was delayed from 2026 to 2028. NEO Surveyor is a follow-on to the NEOWISE mission that Mainzer headed when she was at JPL.

“There are few roles of government more important than planetary defense and I’m proud of Arizona’s outsize contribution to confronting these challenges by playing a leading role in NEO Surveyor and NEOWISE,” Sinema said. “It is absolutely essential that Congress fund the NEO Surveyor program as requested in the FY2024 budget request and at appropriate levels for years to come.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson displays models of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft (to his right) and NEO Surveyor spacecraft (to his left) during testimony on NASA’s FY2024 budget request to the Senate Commerce Committee. May 16, 2023.  Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Nelson assured her that NEO Surveyor remains on track to launch in 2028. He was clearly prepared for her line of questioning having arrived at the hearing with “show and tell” models of NEO Surveyor and the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft that impacted an asteroid last year as a planetary defense test.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) chairing a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on NASA’s FY2024 budget request. May 16, 2023. Screengrab.

Full committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who was present only at the start of the hearing, is also interested in DART because part of the propulsion system was built in Redmond, WA.  She praised the DART mission and other NASA achievements not only in space but aeronautics, but cautioned against taking those successes for granted. She wants to pass a multi-year NASA authorization during this Congress to help ensure NASA has “stable, predictable funding.”

Cantwell pointed to the out-year projections in NASA’s FY2024 request that show the agency growing at 2 percent or less compared to the 7 percent increase requested for FY2024. A 3-5 year authorization is needed to make sure “we don’t fall behind.”

Nelson agreed completely. “A 5-year authorization bill would be very, very well received in the aerospace community.”

It was Nelson when he was in the Senate and then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who wrote the last multi-year NASA authorization bill, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that covered FY2011-FY2013.  Two more NASA authorization bills have been enacted since, in 2017 and 2022, but they were only for one year. Authorization bills set policy and may recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide any money. Only appropriators have money to spend.

Cantwell’s House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), also has made it clear that enacting a new NASA authorization bill is a high priority, although it is not clear what period of time it would cover.


This article has been updated with Bill Ingalls’s photo of Nelson and the two spacecraft models.

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