Apr 21 2007

Lawmakers at odds with NASA's chief

Huntsville Times


NASA Administrator Mike Griffin might want to take note, space experts and elected officials say, that over the long run it is better to work with Congress than to be ground up by Congress.

Earlier this week U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, told about 200 North Alabama civic leaders that he is "counting the days, one year and eight-and-a-half months, until we have a new administrator."

Several elected officials at the meeting acknowledged conflict between members of Congress and Griffin over lunar exploration.

Shelby and Griffin have squared off over a 32-employee Marshall Space Flight Center lunar robotics office that Griffin wants to move from Marshall to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Shelby and other senators directed Griffin in a letter dated April 10 to keep the office open and include $20 million for it in the fiscal 2008 NASA budget.

As of Friday, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said the office remains open at Marshall, but the plans to implement the plan that would shut it down are still in effect.

Shelby said Griffin has yet to respond directly to his office about the letter, but the NASA administrator criticized him and other members of Congress about budget priorities in the press.

"He had some sharp words for me," Shelby said Thursday. "I just responded to what he said. I can work with Mike Griffin. I've worked with people in the past, and will in the future.

"I don't think Mike Griffin wants to work with me, though. (Rep. Bud) Cramer and (Sen. Jeff) Sessions and I will be here long after Mike Griffin is gone, and we will work with the next person to support NASA and Marshall."

Although today the Republican party is in the minority, Shelby is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees the NASA budget. It's a position that still gives Shelby political clout and maneuver room, said Mark McDaniel, a Huntsville lawyer and space expert who advises members of Congress on aerospace issues.

"That position gives him a lot of power still, and he has forged relationships with the chairman (Sen.) Barbara Mikulski of that subcommittee. The NASA administrator can't ignore him and expect to get away with it in the long run," McDaniel said.

A former member of the NASA Advisory Council, McDaniel said he learned a clear lesson while moving in Washington circles: Work with members of Congress "and not against them. They will grind you into the ground."

"The president proposes a program, but Congress disposes of the money. That's what a person who works in the executive branch of government had to keep in mind," McDaniel said. "That's our government, and it is valuable because of oversight issues. I think that gets away from some people in the executive branch sometimes."

Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee who runs the NASAWatch.com Web site, said the feud between Shelby and Griffin seems silly compared to NASA's overall budget challenges "because it is over 32 people who won't even lose their jobs."

"I don't think Mike Griffin is in trouble or will lose his job because of Richard Shelby. Shelby's in the minority now," Cowing said. "I think Mike Griffin thinks he can run NASA without Congress, sometimes, and that's not the case."

But Cowing said NASA's budget is shrinking. Because Congress failed to approve NASA's budget for fiscal 2007, the space agency is working under a continuing resolution that freezes budget money at the 2006 level.

That means NASA has to keep programs going with a budget shortage of more than $500 million, NASA leaders have said.

"What's Mike Griffin supposed to do? What's NASA supposed to do? They have a mandate from the president and Congress to perform a task - return to the moon," Cowing said. "But (NASA) wasn't given enough money to start with, and now NASA has to deal with even less. Priorities have to be set, and money has to be shifted in the budget.

"Again, what's Mike Griffin supposed to do? Where's the money come from?"