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Congressman Sensenbrenner chaired the House Science Committee in the latter part of the 1990s and returned to the committee this year. (credit: Office of Congressman Sensenbrenner)

An interview with Congressman Sensenbrenner

On February 26, 2007 I had a conversation with Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) about his role as a member of the House Science and Technology Committee. Congressman Sensenbrenner had previously been the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and before that he was the chairman of the science committee. He also represents the district I live and work in. The interview offered an interesting insight into the politics behind NASA and other federal agencies.

I asked Congressman Sensenbrenner why he wanted to return to the committee and what he hoped to accomplish. He said he had been on the House Science Committee for twenty-one of his twenty-nine years in Congress and he always wanted to be on the committee. He said that his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee was more than a fulltime job and he couldn’t have done justice to being on both committees. He said it is difficult to accomplish any specific goals being on the minority side of the isle. The majority gets to set the agenda for the committee.

Congressman Sensenbrenner is on the subcommittee for investigations. I asked him what kind of investigations this subcommittee does. He said the Democrats wanted a separate subcommittee that he feels is a duplication of effort and unnecessary. He said the purpose is to point fingers when things don’t work out.

I asked Sensenbrenner whether he thinks the Vision for Space Exploration put forth by the Bush Administration the right one. He said yes, but it is yet to be proven that NASA can manage the development of such a complex project. He said that the Columbia accident showed that NASA did not fully learn the lessons of the Challenger accident. He said he has long been a supporter of replacing the Space Shuttle because it is too complex and expensive to operate. In his opinion past attempts to replace the Shuttle failed because when they start with inadequate funding, cost overruns grow and schedules slip.

I followed up my question on the VSE asking if it will survive if the next president doesn’t support it. Can Congress keep it alive in such a situation? His answer was simple: “No.” He said that it has helped NASA whenever a president from Texas, a state with a large NASA presence, has been in office.

I followed up my question on the VSE asking if it will survive if the next president doesn’t support it. Can Congress keep it alive in such a situation? His answer was simple: “No.”

A number of people have proposed alternatives to NASA’s plans for returning to the Moon. At first blush some of these plans look to be credible alternatives to NASA’s plans and say that they could be done faster and cheaper and preserve more of the legacy of the Shuttle program. I have seen in the private sector where companies aren’t willing to look at alternative ideas just because they aren’t theirs, so I asked, “How do you know if NASA is ignoring what might be better ideas for similar reasons and is this something that the Science Committee looks into?” He responded that all scientists say “that my science is better than others” and that they want their appropriations tripled at the expense of others. He said that after a while you develop a “tin ear” towards it.

In a follow up I asked, “Do you trust that NASA’s leadership is making the best decisions for the future of the agency?” He said that he does not yet know enough about the current leadership to offer an opinion. He did note that he had more experience dealing with two former administrators, Richard Truly and Daniel Goldin. He said that Richard Truly with a military background and being a former astronaut had more personal credibility within the agency, but that morale was bad under Goldin, who believed in “management by press release”.

NASA is operating in this fiscal year at the same budget level as 2006. I asked, “Is there any chance that NASA will be given any extra funds to keep development of the Orion/Ares replacement on schedule?” He said that Congressman David Obey (D-WI), the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, could answer that. He said that Obey has always been an opponent of the International Space Station project. My follow up was, “Will NASA get back on track with the ’08 budget?” That depends on the Senate, he said. The Senate only passed 2007 spending bills for the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. He continued to say that spending levels are now in the hands of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sensenbrenner called the Chinese ASAT test “a deal breaker” for any cooperation between the US and China on science projects.

Sensenbrenner, a sponsor of the Commercial Space Act of 1998, did say that NASA should be doing more to encourage private space development, but that one of the problems was that NASA viewed this as competition. However, he said he couldn’t answer whether now was the right time for export control reform to make it easier for US companies to sell products to foreign customers, especially in NATO and other allied countries. He pointed out the 1996 incident when, according to a congressional investigation, Loral Corporation provided guidance system technology to China who may potentially be the next military threat. He also said that Iran is looking to acquire technology in this area.

China just passed Japan to move into the number two position in spending on research and development behind the US. An article on a Chinese news website said that their goal is to change the label “Made in China” to “Created in China”. I asked Rep. Sensenbrenner, “With this kind of growing competition, how much should the US be spending on our own science programs to maintain our technological lead and how does spending on NASA figure into the formula?” The Congressman gave an answer in a different direction than I expected. He said it wouldn’t matter how much we spent on science if China didn’t respect intellectual property rights. He said that they get “a free ride” at the expense of the rest of us. He said we could spend our entire federal budget on science, but we couldn’t stay ahead if China just appropriates the intellectual property. He said that the US, Europe, and Japan need to stand up to them over this issue.

The US is cooperating with China on the ITER nuclear fusion project through the Department of Energy. I asked how will China’s test of an ASAT system affect future cooperation on science projects and how should the US respond to this test. Sensenbrenner called the test “a deal breaker.” He continued on to say that during the depths of the Cold War that the US and Soviets never directly threatened each other’s “national means of verification.” Both realized that agreements on arms limitations would be worthless unless they could be verified. He said that the only purpose of the Chinese ASAT system is to deny verification of what they are doing. He added that he thinks the ITER project is a waste of money. He said it’s throwing good money after bad.

The unmanned science programs at NASA are competing with the manned programs and aeronautics programs for tight funds. I asked if there is any chance of boosting funding for these programs across the board. He said that in his prior service on the Science Committee that he worked with Congressman George Brown (D-CA) to fight to increase the unmanned programs and to have a balance between the programs. He mentioned again, however, that funding levels for the agency were more in the hands of the appropriation committees.

Sensenbrenner said that including Russia in the ISS project has been a “disaster”, but that there has to be international cooperation in the return to the Moon because we can’t afford to do it alone.

NASA spending in the 1960s is credited with jumpstarting the technological part of our economy and inspiring a generation of scientists and engineers. However, Sensenbrenner said that this was no longer much of a factor in determining NASA’s budget. He said that we’re already losing students in math and science at an early age, evidence that there is a disconnection in math and science in education that is the real problem. He went on to say that we’ve been replenishing our shortfall in science and technology skills with foreign graduates who are now more likely to go home after graduating because of the emerging economies around the world. He also doesn’t like the way the State Department is running the H1B visa program to bring in high-tech workers. He said that on a recent trip to India he found that H1B visas were being offered to Indian cuisine chefs. He likes Indian cuisine, but he doesn’t think that it qualifies as high-tech. He said that he also witnessed the processing of L-1 visa applications (international transfers within companies) that were supposedly from the New Jersey office of a company. He said the still-wet ink smudged because they were really printed in the neighborhood.

I read news websites all over the world including Al Jazeera, Pravda, the Chinese People’s Daily, and several others on a regular basis. The accomplishments of NASA in both the manned and unmanned programs seem to be the only thing about the US that these sites cover on a regular basis that gets consistent positive coverage. I asked, “How valuable is this for US foreign policy and our image abroad?” Sensenbrenner said that this is less valuable than it used to be because the spectacular successes are less frequent. The positive is that it does showcase our cutting-edge technology. He said that NASA should not be part of foreign policy. He said that including Russia in the ISS project has been a “disaster”, but that there has to be international cooperation in the return to the Moon because we can’t afford to do it alone. He said there have to be binding commitments for Moon cooperation in order to include others.

I hope to talk with Rep. Sensenbrenner again as he immerses himself into the work of the committee and get his perspective as things move forward. Sitting down and talking with your congressman is something I would recommend to everyone if you get a chance. You will find out very quickly that the perception you get from the usual eight-second sound bites they get on the evening news is far from complete and not always accurate.