No Transition Team for NASA "At This Time"

No Transition Team for NASA "At This Time"

It was just one week ago today that the world learned Republicans swept the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Today, all three bodies are gearing up for a new presidency and a new session of Congress, but there is little clarity about how the space program will be affected.  Despite all the recent rampant rumors about who would be on the Trump transition team for NASA, for example, it turns out there will not be one at all, at least for now.

Election Results and the Incoming Trump Administration

Votes in Michigan are still being tallied, but as of this morning Politico shows that nationally Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 1 million, while Donald Trump won the Electoral College 290-232 (270 are needed to win).  Under the Constitution, it is the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that determines the winner.  The Electoral College does not meet until next month to make the vote official, but Trump’s lead is sufficient that it is just a formality.  Who wins Michigan’s 16 electors will not change the outcome.

The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) is still getting its sea legs. The sudden decision last week to replace the transition organization set up by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and replace it with a new team led by Vice President-Elect Mike Pence has disrupted the process.  Reports are widespread in Washington about intense in-fighting within PETT although Trump officials insist that is not true.  Ironically, Congress passed a law allowing presidential transition teams to begin their work earlier than in the past — after the party conventions instead of waiting until the election — because issues are so complex that more time is needed to allow for an orderly transfer of power.  Christie’s team consequently was put in place after the Republican Convention in July, but much of that effort appears to have been for naught.  Who is or is not working on the Pence transition team changes daily.

Typically, presidential transition teams assign small groups — currently called Agency Review Teams (ARTs) — to each department and agency.   There have been many rumors about who is on the NASA team, but today NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a memo to NASA employees stating that NASA has been informed that no ART will be assigned to NASA for now.

“The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) has indicated that NASA will not be receiving an Agency Review Team (ART) at this time.  NASA, as all federal agencies, stands ready to support the PETT at a future date.”

A NASA transition team could be set up later, although time is getting
short, or the incoming Administration could wait until after the
inauguration to address NASA and other space issues.

Rumors were that former Congressman Bob Walker would be very involved in a NASA transition team.  He was the point man for space policy during the final weeks of the Trump campaign.  He co-authored two op-eds for Space News, one on civil space policy, the other on national security space, and spoke to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) on October 26 outlining top-level Trump space priorities.  Walker became a lobbyist after he retired from Congress and is now executive chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  The lobbyist ban presumably excludes him from serving now.   Mark Albrecht is another person frequently mentioned as a potential NASA transition team member.  He was Executive Director of the White House National Space Council during the George H. W. Bush Administration.  Reviving a National Space Council to coordinate U.S. national security, civil and commercial space policy is a key feature of what Walker has described as Trump space priorities.  

The quadrennial parlor game of guessing who will be nominated to fill various positions, like NASA Administrator, is in full swing, but it is far too early for any useful reporting on that score.  All that is known is that current Presidential appointees must submit their resignations as of the end of the Obama Administration on January 20. The new President can accept the resignations or not.  If not, the individual can decide whether or not to remain.  Dan Goldin survived two presidential transitions, serving almost 10 years as NASA Administrator.  He was appointed in the last year of the George H.W. Bush Administration, stayed through the Bill Clinton Administration and into the first year of the George W. Bush Administration.  It does not seem likely that current Administrator Charlie Bolden is interested in trying to beat that record, but whether he would be willing to stay, if asked, until, for example, a new NASA Administrator is confirmed is something only he knows.  He has been Administrator since July 17, 2009.

Wrapping Up the 114th Congress, Preparing for the 115th

Up on Capitol Hill, the Republicans retained control of the House and Senate.  Not all contests are completed yet, but as of today, Politico reports today there will be 238 Republicans and 193 Democrats in the House, and 51 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents in the Senate.  Four House races and one for the Senate (Louisiana) are not final yet.  A run-off election in Louisiana for the Senate seat and two of the House seats is set for December 10.  The other two House seats that have not been called yet are in California.

Yesterday and today, House and Senate Republicans reelected their party leaders — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  Senate Democrats elected Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as Senate Minority Leader to replace Harry Reid (D-NV), who is retiring.  House Democrats decided yesterday to delay their decision on who will be House Minority Leader in the next Congress.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the incumbent and while the delay may signal some dissatisfaction with her remaining in that position, the betting is that she will keep the job though there might be changes in other leadership positions as there were in the Senate.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, was appointed to a Senate Democratic leadership post even though he is not a Democrat, but an Independent.  His strong showing during the primaries convinced Senate Democrats that he was connecting with a part of the electorate they want and need.

The 114th Congress still has a few weeks to go before the 115th Congress convenes in January.  During that time, Congress must pass one or more appropriations bills to keep the government operating after December 9 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires.  A decision has not yet been made on whether to extend the current CR or pass full-year appropriations bills. 

Congress is expected to complete work on the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and could pass the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, which cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in September.  The Senate has not passed the bill yet.  Whether it gets through Congress and to President Obama’s desk depends on how deeply motivated members on both sides of Capitol Hill are to conveying their civil space policy preferences to the new President through legislation.

The first day of legislative business for the 115th Congress has not been formally announced
yet, but the House is expected to meet to count the electoral votes on
January 6. (Officially new Congresses begin on January 3, but that is a Sunday in 2017.) 

Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th U.S. President on the steps of the Capitol on January 20. 

One of first tasks for the new Trump Administration will be developing a FY2018 budget request to be submitted to Congress in the spring.   By law, the budget is supposed to be submitted on the first Monday in February.  The Obama Administration rarely met that schedule (in part because Congress did not finish work on the prior year’s budget in a timely manner) and any incoming Administration clearly cannot get it done in such a short time.  

Whenever it is released, it will be the first real indication of the new Administration’s budget priorities for all federal government departments and agencies, including space activities at NASA, NOAA, FAA and DOD.  As tempting as it may be to speculate, it is important to wait before building up or dashing hopes.

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