Wolf, Culberson Want NASA Administrator to Get 10-Year Appointment

Wolf, Culberson Want NASA Administrator to Get 10-Year Appointment

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) are drafting legislation to make NASA into an agency that operates like the FBI with an administrator appointed to a 10-year term according to the Houston Chronicle.

Wolf is chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA. Culberson is a member of the subcommittee.

Wolf wrote a letter, which he made public, to the National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction in June urging the committee to look at whether the NASA administrator should be appointed for 10 years:  “I also urge you to consider whether the NASA administrator should serve a set 10-year term, similar to the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to ensure greater independence from the White House and improve cohesiveness over multiple administrations?”

The committee was created based on language Wolf inserted in the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA.   Its report is expected by the end of the year.

That apparently is too late for Wolf who is moving ahead with drafting legislation that would also “make the budget cycle multiyear rather than annual,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Research and development agencies like NASA often have wished for multi-year budgets to enable them to better plan their programs, but until now Congress has been unwilling to commit future Congresses to appropriations levels. Appropriators like Wolf and Culberson, in fact, tend to be very protective of their power to set appropriations levels annually.   It is not clear from the Chronicle’s account whether they are suggesting that they and future appropriators relinquish their power to set appropriations levels for NASA years in advance, or whether they simply want a multi-year spending plan, but without a commitment from Congress to provide that spending level.  

Today, NASA provides a 5-year budget “run out” to show how much money it expects to request in the future, but it is not a commitment on the part of the Administration to request that funding level, much less a commitment by Congress to provide it.   Congress also passes multi-year authorization bills that recommend future funding levels, but those also are not a commitment to appropriate that level of funding.   NASA’s current authorization bill covers three years:  FY2011, FY2012 and FY2013.  Authorization bills only recommend funding, however.  Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies, one year at a time in almost all cases.

Details on what Wolf and Culberson exactly have in mind will have to await introduction of the legislation, but the Chronicle says the intent is to make NASA less politicized.   Whether appointing a NASA administrator for 10 years would accomplish that goal is an open question.   The policy changes that have complicated NASA’s efforts over the past several years were caused by the White House and Congress, not the NASA Administrator, who must dutifully execute the laws that Congress passes and the policies issued by the President.

Editor’s note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the NRC committee mentioned in this article.  Nothing in this article is based on any privileged discussions within the committee.  As noted, the letter from Wolf to the committee was made public by the Congressman and is posted on his website.  The NRC committee is inviting comments from the public about the elements of its task statement.   To comment, visit the committee’s website and fill out the “Public Input Form.”  Comments are due by August 17.

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