Trump Will Nominate Senate Staffer to be Deputy NASA Administrator

Trump Will Nominate Senate Staffer to be Deputy NASA Administrator

The White House announced today its intent to nominate James Morhard to be NASA Deputy Administrator.  Morhard is a Senate staffer currently serving as the Deputy Sergeant at Arms and has no known experience in aerospace. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been publicly promoting Janet Kavandi, Director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center and a former astronaut, for the slot, but it appears he will not get his choice.

A January 2015 profile of Morhard by Roll Call noted that at that time he had worked for nine Senators over the course of a then-22 year career in the Senate including a stint as chief of staff for the Senate Appropriations Committee.  One Senator with whom he became close was former Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Stevens died in a 2010 airplane crash in that state.  Morhard was one of the small group of nine people aboard the plane that also included former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who himself had been a Senate appropriations committee staffer at one time.

Morhard and O’Keefe were among the four who survived the crash.  Morhard speaks about the crash on a CBS video posted on YouTube.  Roll Call posted an audio on YouTube where Morhard talks about the aftermath of the crash and being visited in the hospital by current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, now the Secretary of Transportation (she was Secretary of Labor at the time).  He speaks glowingly of McConnell, saying “there’s a warmness to this man that people don’t see.”

His political connections apparently are serving him well with this nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator.

Excerpt from White House press release, July 12, 2018.

How his confirmation would serve NASA is another question.  Bridenstine has made no secret of his desire to have a Deputy who is a technical, apolitical space professional with experience managing a large organization, specifically Janet Kavandi.  In short, Bridenstine is seeking the skill sets that his critics say he lacks.  He was confirmed by the Senate on a party-line vote 50-49 in part because Democrats insisted that he is not qualified.  It would not be surprising if Democrats similarly oppose Morhard.  Bridenstine at least was a military pilot even though he was a politician at the time of his nomination and confirmation.

Morhard’s friendship with McConnell, however, could get him the Republican votes he needs.

The announcement today was of the President’s intent to nominate him, so the paperwork has not gone forward to the Senate yet. If his nomination follows the usual path, there will be a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, followed by a vote on the Senate floor.  The timing of either of those steps is not clear.  It is possible to skip the confirmation hearing, however, if the nomination is considered non-controversial.  That expedited process, called the “privileged” calendar, was followed for NASA’s CFO, Jeffrey DeWit.   How the decision is made as to whether a nomination can be considered under the expedited process is unclear.  A vote by the full Senate is still required, however.

For his part, Bridenstine issued a statement late this afternoon says that “This administration is committed to American leadership in space, and I look forward to working with Mr. Morhard upon his confirmation.”

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