House committee backs NASA workforce flexibility

The House Science Committee on Tuesday overrode Democratic objections and approved a bill that sponsors said would give greater flexibility to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency to restructure and revitalize its aging workforce.

The measure (H.R. 1085) was approved 21 to 14 with only one Democrat voting in favor, despite complaints by Democrats that it made no sense to craft changes in the agency until a report is received from Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the Columbia accident investigation board, sometime in the next month or so, and they had had time to study the bill closely.

But to no avail. "Within five years, a quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire," said Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

"I don't think we can wait any longer in dealing with this issue," he said, adding, "Admiral Gehman's report is not likely to say anything specific about workforce reforms-that's hardly the Gehman board's focus."

Democrats complained they had not received the text of the proposed bill "till 7:15 last night," with senior Democrat Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas declaring, "We should not be marking up the bill at this time." But Boehlert went forward nevertheless.

A motion by Hall to block the ability of the chairman to call a recess at any time-which would have made it difficult to keep going without a rest period or timeout-was rejected, 16 to 21.

A so-called "manager's amendment" to the bill-a partial rewrite of the measure offered by Boehlert-was then adopted on another party-line vote, 22-to-16.

An amendment by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to require NASA to explain how it will ensure that its new workforce authority would not compromise safety, was approved by voice vote.

Adopted by voice vote was an amendment by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., to make certain that certain workforce authorities are not available to political appointees.

But another Miller amendment to eliminate the demonstration project authority in the bill was rejected on a 20-to-20 tie vote.

An amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., to clarify language on scholarship eligibility was approved by voice vote.

An amendment by Hall about issues raised by the Columbia accident and NASA safety activities was ruled out of order as not germane, and an appeal against this ruling was then sustained 22-19 vote, killing the amendment. Boehlert said this was an issue where "we should wait for the Gehman report."

An amendment by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, to add a section on workforce diversity was approved by voice vote.

An amendment by Rep. Nicholas V. Lampson, D-Texas, to set goals for NASA's human space flight program was defeated 12-18.

An amendment by Miller to obtain an independent assessment of NASA's existing workforce flexibilities was defeated 9-13.

An amendment by Jackson Lee on minority university reserarch and education was rejected, 12-18.

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