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Statement of The Honorable Sherwood Boehlert
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
"Evaluating Human Capital at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration"
March, 06 2003


March 6, 2003


Mr. Chairman:
I greatly appreciate your allowing me to appear before you today to discuss the personnel problems facing NASA and how we might address them. As you well know, this issue has been of concern for many years, but is now receiving more attention from all of us because of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

I wanted to come before you today because I think that reform of NASA’s workforce policies could be one of the positive changes to result from the demise of STS-107. That is not to say, of course, that different personnel policies would have prevented the loss of the Shuttle. But anything we can do to strengthen NASA as an agency will be valuable at this critical time. In the end, organizations, including federal agencies, can only be as good as the people they comprise.

That NASA needs to do more to recruit and retain the best people is hardly a secret, nor is it an attack on the current workforce. One of the greatest problems NASA faces is a huge retirement bulge. Within five years, a quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire. The most recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on NASA, issued just this past January, noted, (quote), “The agency still need[s] to deal with critical losses due to retirements in coming years.” This conclusion built on numerous past GAO reports that concluded that NASA had to do more to address its workforce needs.

Now, NASA is not the only agency facing workforce issues, in general, or issues involving its scientific and engineering workforce in particular. But NASA’s needs are especially critical. I don’t believe we have to wait for massive, wholesale reform of civil service law to take care of NASA’s immediate problems. Indeed, there’s precedent for helping individual agencies solve their problems. In the 1980s, the Science Committee, working with the civil service committees, got enacted civil service reforms exclusively to help what was then the National Bureau of Standards recruit and retain top scientists.

And there’s another reason not to wait for broader reform to help NASA. The changes NASA needs do not amount to any kind of startling break from the existing legal structure. The changes expand or revise existing legal authority in ways that should not raise undue concern.

With this in mind, I commend to you the package of reforms the Science Committee majority negotiated with NASA. These reforms are incorporated in H.R. 1085, which I introduced yesterday. We plan to have a hearing on the bill next Wednesday, and would like to move it before the April recess. At our NASA budget hearing last week, Members on both sides of the aisle expressed interest in passing workforce legislation, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to build consensus for H.R. 1085. With your permission, I’d like to submit the bill for the record.

As I’ve said, H.R. 1085 builds on existing law. It allows NASA, for example, to offer larger recruitment and retention bonuses than are permitted currently, and to offer bonuses to employees shifting between federal jobs without relocating. But the language we use parallels existing law and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regulations.

You’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t go through all the provisions of H.R. 1085 here, although it’s a relatively short bill. I do want to point out, though, that we were very careful to give NASA only temporary authority so that Congress could evaluate the reforms before they became permanent. We also require a plan from NASA before the reforms are in place so that both the Congress and NASA’s employees can understand how this new authority will be used. And many of NASA’s actions will still require OPM review.

NASA proposed some reforms that we rejected. Most notably we were unwilling to let NASA decide on its own to make permanent any large-scale personnel demonstration projects. And we were unwilling to let NASA run exchange programs in which industry employees would act as NASA staff while being paid by their home companies. Whatever the advantage of such exchanges, that authority seemed like it raised too many conflict-of-interest concerns.

So we think we’ve taken a cautious, balanced approach to solving some real problems. Working off NASA’s own recommendations, we’ve expanded the utility of current law without throwing the existing system overboard and without abdicating our oversight responsibilities.

We look forward to working with your Committee and with Chairman Davis in the House to come up with a package of reforms that will make NASA stronger without making the civil service system weaker. Thank you.

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