Science Committee hears from NASA, NSF and Department of Commerce Inspector Generals

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Publication date: 
8 April 2013

The Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a February 28 hearing to hear from Inspector Generals (IG) about the performance and management challenges at their respective agencies.  This hearing was the first of two hearings during which the subcommittee received information from agency Offices of the Inspector General.

Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) opened by urging both sides of the aisle to take advantage of the opportunity to question witnesses about the agencies that they represent.  “With the President’s budget expected shortly, this hearing will help us, as an authorizing committee, to coordinate with the Appropriations Committee, by identifying for that Committee programs, projects and activities that work, as opposed to those that need to be modified or perhaps eliminated,” said Broun. 

Broun acknowledged that there are no shortages of issues at the agencies and that he was especially interested in discussing information technology security at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the use of the federal acquisition process for “larger, multi-million dollar procurements.”  He was similarly troubled with the National Science Foundation’s oversight and transparency requirements in cooperative agreements.  Regarding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce, Broun was most concerned about financial mismanagement, anti-deficiency violations, and the sustainability of the satellite program.  Anti-Deficiency violations, including the mismanagement of funds at the National Weather Service, were discussed in a September 12 hearing which was the subject of a previous FYI.    

Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-NY) highlighted the independence of the role of the IG as he expressed serious discontent with the Department of Commerce IG.  He emphasized that the IG’s office provided contradictory responses to the committee following a NOAA investigation into criminal financial misconduct.  He was angered by reports that senior employees within the Department of Commerce were compelled to resign and signed non-disclosure agreements, baring them from disclosing information about the IGs office.  Maffei asked “why would the IG compel senior officials to relinquish their statutory, and in fact constitutional, right of redress” as he stressed that “gag orders” are “not acceptable conduct.” 

Maffei stated that a letter from members of the Science Committee was sent to the Government Accountability Office requesting that an investigation be opened into the management and conduct of the IG Office at the Department of Commerce.  He stated “any charges of wasting taxpayer dollars or using them to run an ineffective office must be investigated.  Congress has the responsibility and authority to hold IGs accountable and we have to ensure money has not been wasted or ineffectively protected and that laws have not been broken in the name of enforcement.” 

Paul Martin, IG of NASA’s Office of Inspector General listed five management and performance challenges:  “the future of US human space flight, project management, infrastructure and facilities management, acquisition and contract management, and information technology security and governance.”   He highlighted that “NASA is moving forward with development of a new rocket, capsule, and related launch infrastructure to enable crewed missions to an asteroid, the Moon, or Mars” which are “expensive and technically complex undertakings in an increasingly austere budget environment.” 

Martin also mentioned that NASA received “less than half its requested budget” which “extended the earliest date that NASA expects to obtain commercial crew transportation services to the [International Space Station] to 2017.”  He stressed that
“declining budgets and fiscal uncertainties present the most significant external challenges to NASA’s ability to successfully move forward on its many projects and programs.”  Budget issues are a concern affecting NASA’s aging infrastructure and the National Research Council recently concluded that there is a “significant mismatch between the programs to which NASA is committed and the budgets that have been provided or anticipated.” 

Allison Lerner, IG of the National Science Foundation (NSF) identified eight top management challenges facing NSF.  Her testimony focused on three of those challenges, including accountability over cooperative agreements for NSF’s large facility construction projects, grant administration, and contract monitoring.  Regarding accountability, Lerner revealed that the IG office “issued several audits that have raised serious questions about NSF’s accountability over Cooperative Agreements for high-risk, high-dollar projects.” 

Lerner stated that an ongoing challenge at the NSF has been “oversight and management of awards that [are] sufficient to safeguard federal funds invested in scientific research.”  She noted “because NSF accomplishes its mission primarily through grants to individual researchers and institutions, robust oversight of grants management is essential for proper accountability over federal tax dollars intended to advance the progress in science.”  Lastly she focused on contract monitoring and investigations into ethical conduct of NSF-funded research.

David Smith, Deputy IG at the Department of Commerce, outlined five major challenges that “represent cross-cutting issues with a focus on the President’s most important goals and longstanding departmental management concerns.”  These include:

  1. “Stimulate economic growth in key industries, increase exports, and enhance stewardship of marine fisheries;”
  2. “Increase oversight of resources entrusted by the public and invest for long-term benefits;”
  3. “Strengthen security and investments in information technology;”
  4. “Implement framework for acquisition project management and improve contracts oversight;”
  5. “Reduce risks of cost overruns, schedule delays, and coverage gaps for NOAA’s satellite programs.”

Following the witness statements, Broun questioned Lerner and Martin about how acquisition authority is implemented at NASA and NSF and whether agencies are required to give advanced notice for solicitation.  When asked about transactional authority of the agencies, Lerner stated that NSF is currently most concerned about oversight controls for the 38 cooperative agreements that cost over $50 million to ensure that funds are properly stewarded and subjected to appropriate levels of accountability.  NASA is currently studying its reimbursable cooperative agreements.

Maffei inquired about details that David Smith of the Commerce Department may have known about Anti-Deficiency Act violations within the IGs office.  He also asked who investigates the IG office.  The panelists stated this was performed by the Council of the Inspector Generals on Integrity and Efficiency. 

Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was concerned about whether the James Webb Space Telescope was behind schedule and over budget to which Martin replied that it was currently fully funded and back on schedule.  Chairman Smith then asked David Smith whether IG staff were prohibited from attending NOAA program management council meetings.  Upon hearing that this had happened, Chairman Smith proposed that he send a letter to NOAA requesting that IG staff be allowed to attend such meetings.  David Smith seemed pleased at this suggestion. 

Subcommittee Members seemed to appreciate the testimony and opportunity for discussion with the IGs though there were instances of disappointment with events within the office of the IG of the Department of Commerce.