Uneventful Hearing Presages Easy Confirmation for Morhard, Droegemeier

Uneventful Hearing Presages Easy Confirmation for Morhard, Droegemeier

James Morhard and Kelvin Droegemeier seem to be on an easy path to confirmation as Deputy NASA Administrator and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) respectively.  Their confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today was uneventful.  The committee is scheduled to vote on the nominations next Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took time out of his busy schedule to attend the Senate Commerce Committee hearing and formally introduce Morhard, which all but assures Republican support. Only one Democrat questioned Morhard’s credentials even though he has no experience in space or aeronautics.

Jim Morhard, NASA Deputy Administrator nominee, testifying at his nomination hearing, August 23, 2018. Credit: NASA

Morhard has spent most of his career as a congressional staffer, heading the Senate Appropriations Committee’s staff for six years.  He is currently the Senate Deputy Sergeant at Arms. In his testimony to the committee, he cited his experience in managing committee staff and getting appropriations bills passed by having the “courage to ‘think outside the box,'” creating an atmosphere of teamwork, “moving forward in situations that continually trend toward disorder,”  “attracting, mentoring and retaining talent,” and establishing “functioning financial mechanisms, and clear chains of command – while still being transparent.”

McConnell called Morhard “completely qualified” based on his years as chief of staff of the appropriations committee where he was the “point person” on the NASA budget and directed a large staff.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) was the only Senator to question Morhard’s qualifications.  Noting that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had publicly advocated for a deputy with a strong technical background and experience managing a large organization, Blumenthal asked Morhard why he felt he fit the bill.  Morhard tried to deflect the question, but after Blumenthal insisted, he replied that he currently helps manage the largest organization on Capitol Hill and has knowledge of budgets, schedules, and security.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), urged Morhard to seek the counsel of career NASA professionals like Bill Gerstenmaier and Bob Cabana since the safety of lives and success of scientific missions are at stake.  Gerstenmaier is the head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs at NASA Headquarters.  Cabana is a former astronaut who is now Director of Kennedy Space Center.

Nelson also asked Morhard how he would ensure that he and Bridenstine work together effectively since in the past there were times when the Administrator and Deputy Administrator were “not on the same page.”  Morhard responded that he understands the chain of command and, if confirmed, he will work for Bridenstine who provides the “vision and voice” for NASA.  He added that he would also be looking at the independent processes NASA has to ensure that safety is not affected by the change in leadership at the agency.  Nelson acknowledged that the two of them had spoken about that and he is satisfied Morhard understands the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents happened because managers were not listening to engineers who were warning them about technical problems.

Democratic concerns about Bridenstine’s views on climate change were one of the factors that complicated his confirmation, which eventually passed the Senate 50-49.  Today, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) asked Morhard about his position on the subject, specifically whether he agrees that human activity is the dominant driver in warming of the planet.  Morhard said he agreed the climate is changing and humans play a role, but demurred on whether humans are the dominant cause.  Markey also wanted to know how Morhard would make certain that NASA scientists are not unduly influenced by politics. Morhard replied that he would work to ensure there is no distortion or disregard for scientific evidence and it is critical that there is “no influence on the outcome of the scientific method.”

On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, asked a series of leading questions about the future of the International Space Station (ISS), which Morhard dutifully answered — continuity of human spaceflight is needed, ISS should be used as long as possible, the NASA talent pool especially at Johnson Space Center should be preserved, and a transition plan is needed that is attractive to the private sector.

Cruz also asked whether Morhard agrees with the existing prohibition on NASA engaging with China on a bilateral basis.  Morhard said yes, that he worked with former Rep. Frank Wolf in drafting that provision in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill and he feels it is “very appropriate.”  The language continues to be included in each year’s CJS bill even though Wolf retired in 2014.  His successor as House CJS subcommittee chair, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), is equally adamant about it.

In response to a question from committee chair Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Morhard said he is “getting up to speed” on NASA’s STEM education programs.  He supports STEM education, but wants to make sure NASA is using its funds effectively.

Droegemeier’s nomination was widely praised by Senators on both sides of the aisle.  He did not raise nor was he asked any questions specifically about space programs, which is not surprising since OSTP’s role in space policy is sharply diminished now that the White House National Space Council has been reestablished.

He assured Senators of his commitment to scientific integrity and that science must be conducted without political influence — “integrity in science is everything.”  Asked by Thune about the appropriate role of science in guiding policy, Droegemeier said “science has to lead the way in telling us what the facts are” and his job is to present that to the President and others.

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