Three Way Race for HSS&T Committee Chair Now Official

Three Way Race for HSS&T Committee Chair Now Official

Although it has been known for weeks, the race to succeed Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee is now officially a three way contest.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher formally threw his hat in the ring yesterday, joining Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).   All are members of the committee now, and Rohrabacher and Sensenbrenner have served as subcommittee or full committee chairmen, respectively, in the past. 

Hall has been committee chairman for only two years, but House Republican term-limit rules restrict members from serving in the top Republican spot on a committee or subcommittee for more than six consecutive years.   Democrats controlled the house from 2006-2010, and Hall was the top Republican on the committee — the “ranking member” — for those four years.  Added to the two in which he has served as chairman, he hit the term limit.

Similarly, Lamar Smith has reached the term limit as chair of the House Judiciary Committee and will lose his gavel at the end of this Congress.   A lawyer who says he studied astronomy and physics in college, Smith confirmed his interest in the chairmanship to The Hill newspaper on Wednesday, saying it is “important that NASA have a unifying vision” and “we should continue to shoot for the stars.”  He represents a district that includes parts of Austin and San Antonio.   In the “science and technology” section of his website, he says he is a strong advocate “for space sciences and other advanced space research efforts” and that it is important for NASA “to conduct scientific research and develop new technology.”   He does not mention human spaceflight, the primary mission of NASA’s Johnson Space Center about 200 miles away from his district.

Sensenbrenner, also a lawyer, issued a press release with his formal announcement on Wednesday.  He chaired the then-named House Science Committee from 1997-2001 and had a strained relationship with then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.  In his announcement on Wednesday, Sensenbrenner said “my first priority will be to pass smart science and space policy that spurs job creation and ensures America’s future competitiveness,” adding that he wants to “refocus NASA and foster the developing private space industry.”  Neither “space” nor “science and technology” appear on the issues list on his website.

Rohrabacher, whose degrees are in history and American Studies, chaired the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee for eight years, from 1996-2004, obtaining a waiver to exceed the six year term limit in order to lead the subcommittee’s investigation of the February 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy.  He also chaired the Energy and Environment subcommittee for two years.  He represents parts of Orange County, CA and SpaceX’s Elon Musk is one of his constituents.   For many years, he has championed commercial space activities, arguing for a smaller government space program and more reliance on the private sector.   He was the only member of the HSS&T committee to publicly praise President Obama’s decision to turn crew transportation to the International Space Station over the private sector, chastising his Republican colleagues for opposing it.  In his announcement yesterday, he said one of his priorities would be ensuring that “NASA has a real, achievable plan for near-term human space exploration.”    The issues section of his website devotes several paragraphs to space issues under the heading “space and science.”

Smith and Sensenbrenner are co-sponsors of the Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 6491) introduced in September by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), Frank Wolf (R-VA) and about a dozen other members. Rohrabacher is not a co-sponsor. That bill would completely restructure how NASA is governed — by a board somewhat similar to the National Science Board that oversees the National Science Foundation — and make the NASA Administrator a 10-year appointment like the Director of the FBI.   The bill has little chance of passing the House this year and virtually none of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate or being signed into law by the President, but it could serve as a vehicle to debate issues about NASA’s future.

Whoever chairs HSS&T in the 113th Congress could have a significant role in shaping future NASA policy since a new NASA authorization bill is needed.  The current law, passed in 2010, authorized NASA’s activities through the end of FY2013.  That bill was crafted by the Senate.  The HSS&T committee had very different views from the Senate, but was unable to get its bill passed by the House in a timely manner.  Rather than forego having any authorization bill at all, the House ultimately adopted the Senate version even though it was strongly opposed by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who chaired the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee at the time.

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