Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the nominee for NASA administrator, cast himself as a consensus builder during a contentious confirmation hearing on Nov. 1. While receiving unanimous support from Republicans, Democrats portrayed him as insufficiently qualified and too politically divisive to lead the agency.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), President Trump’s nominee to lead NASA, faced a contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Nov. 1.
During the hearing, Bridenstine portrayed himself as a builder of bipartisan consensus on space policy who would faithfully guide NASA into a new era of crewed space exploration. However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the committee’s ranking member, set a confrontational tone early on, questioning whether Bridenstine could be that kind of leader. He said,
The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive. More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers, the Congress, and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration.
He argued that Bridenstine does not meet those criteria and would have trouble leaving behind baggage from his political career. Other committee Democrats also pressed Bridenstine on his political record while Republicans countered that the Democrats were unduly politicizing the nomination.
Democrats cast Bridenstine as inexperienced and divisive
In his opening remarks, Nelson argued that Bridenstine has insufficient technical and administrative experience “to make the complex and nuanced engineering, safety and budgetary decisions for which the head of NASA must be accountable.” He suggested that when disasters have occurred at the agency, it has been during times of “partisan” leadership.
Later, Nelson returned to Bridenstine’s qualifications to make vital safety decisions. Bridenstine said he would rely on NASA’s independent technical authorities and the counsel of top career officials, prompting Nelson to suggest he might not be able to reconcile conflicting advice.
The Democrats hit repeatedly on Bridenstine’s political views, asking about his comments on the morality of the LGBTQ community, his defense of Trump’s statements in the Access Hollywood video, and his association with various rightwing personalities and organizations. Nelson further argued that Bridenstine is an extreme figure within his party, citing his attacks on other Republicans for encouraging across-the-aisle cooperation.
Bridenstine replied that being a NASA administrator is very different from being an Oklahoma congressman. He also sought to assure the committee that he would treat the agency’s employees equally and according to the law. He noted that his experience as a Navy pilot had also been “apolitical.”
However, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) argued that Bridenstine’s record would remain relevant. Citing the example of sexual harassment in science, she said his past remarks would “not give people, particularly women, confidence that you are going to protect them, stand up for a fair and equal workplace.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) suggested it might be inappropriate for someone with Bridenstine’s record to lead an organization that inspires and educates children.
Bridenstine avows support for NASA science, hedges on climate
Beyond his ability to lead NASA, Bridenstine worked to allay concerns that he would impose a personal or political agenda on NASA’s mission and scientific work. In his opening remarks, he vowed,
Should I be confirmed, it will be my intention to build off the work accomplished by the great people at NASA during the last administration and to move forward by following the guidance of the NASA Transition Authorization Act, appropriations legislation, and the science decadal surveys. We must all do this together.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked Bridenstine about provisions in the “American Space Renaissance Act,” which Bridenstine introduced in 2016, that remove science-related items from NASA’s institutional objectives in favor of new ones related to human space exploration.
Bridenstine replied that the legislation had aimed to “create a pioneering doctrine for NASA for deep space” and did not therefore directly address fields such as Earth science. He said it is “absolutely not the case” that he intended to eliminate scientific research as a goal of the agency. He pointed to other provisions in the bill relating to the purchase of Earth observational data as evidence of his interest in getting “the best science that NASA can get.”
Asked by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) how he would protect NASA research from political interference, Bridenstine pointed again to the importance of the decadal surveys organized by the National Academies. He said, “That decadal survey ultimately is what enables us to prevent the science from becoming partisan. … In my estimation, it keeps it just consensus-driven. That’s the objective.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) turned his questioning toward the freedom of agency scientists, saying, “I have been told by scientists that fear is rampant amongst our government scientists that they are going to be punished if they speak publicly about their work on climate change science.” Asked if he would pledge not to “punish” NASA climate scientists for speaking out about their views, Bridenstine replied, “Without question.”
Several Democratic committee members probed Bridenstine on his prior rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change. He replied that he believes that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that the atmosphere is warming, and that humans play a role.
Schatz pressed Bridenstine for a more concrete answer. He said that many of Trump’s nominees appear to have been “given permission” to suggest some role for humans short of accepting the scientific consensus that climate change is currently “primarily caused by human activity.” He queried whether Bridenstine disagrees with that consensus, is unaware of it, or feels a consensus has not yet been reached. Ultimately, Bridenstine would not commit to saying human causes are predominant and said it is NASA’s role to research the matter further.
Republicans support Bridenstine, condemn Democrats’ attacks
Committee Republicans asked Bridenstine few probing questions and unanimously expressed support for his nomination, citing his personal integrity, military experience, and work in space policy. They argued that Bridenstine’s comments on climate change represent a sensibly open-minded perspective and that the Democrats’ attacks on his political comments and associations were out of line.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), for instance, said the Democrats’ questions had been “a little bit disgusting,” and that they were criticizing Bridenstine for being a Republican and for having views at odds with other Republicans. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) likewise said he was puzzled that anyone could think intraparty criticism should be disqualifying, suggesting it is instead the mark of “a brave person who doesn’t simply follow the flow.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the committee’s Space Subcommittee, praised Bridenstine’s character and career in public service, and said that the committee has managed to maintain bipartisan comity on matters of space. He went on,
I believe you are going to get confirmed, but I would say to my Democratic friends on this committee that if the confirmation ends up going down as a party line vote, I think that would be deeply unfortunate for NASA and for the space community.
The committee is scheduled to vote on whether to recommend Bridenstine’s confirmation on Nov. 8.
Update (11/8/2017): The committee voted to recommend Bridenstine's confirmation on a party-line vote of 14 to 13.