At NASA Hearing, Silence on Earmarks

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Most administration officials are on their best behavior when they appear before Congress, but NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, despite reasonable skills as a forehead-knuckler, is much better known for telling blunt truths.

It would have been interesting to see how members of the Senate subcommittee on science and space would have reacted had they asked Griffin during a hearing yesterday about the $568.5 million in earmarks that lawmakers had tucked into NASA's spending bill this year.

Because Griffin was ready to talk about it. Deep inside his 10-page prepared statement -- submitted for the record but not read -- NASA had fixed him up with two meaty, single-spaced paragraphs on the "Impact of Earmarks on NASA's Mission."

The topic sentence left little to the imagination: "The Growth of these Congressional directions is eroding NASA's ability to carry out its mission of space exploration and peer-reviewed scientific discovery."

Earmarks, also known as "special projects," "congressional directions," "directed funding" or, less flatteringly, "pork," are the gifts that lawmakers make to their districts or states. The NASA bill included pages and pages of these, including $4 million for something called the "Alliance for NanoHealth" and $500,000 for the "Temporal Land Cover Change Research Program at Idaho State University."

Griffin pointed out that $568.5 million was real money for an agency whose total budget is $16.623 billion. It was a "record high in both dollar amount and number of individual items," the statement said, and needed to be offset "by reductions within NASA's budget" to "ongoing and planned NASA programs."

These included "redirections" for half of NASA's education budget, 5 percent of the exploration budget and 4 percent of the science budget, the statement said. This comes at a time when NASA is trying to fly the space shuttle, build the international space station and design a new spaceship to go to the moon and Mars, all at the same time.

But none of this got said at the hearing. Even though heads of federal departments generally do not like earmarks, they rarely say so, especially when they are making their periodic pilgrimages to ask Congress to keep funding their programs.

So did Griffin pull his punches?

Naw: "I feel about these earmarks the same way I always feel about earmarks," Griffin told reporters after the hearing. "Our budget is very limited. We have a strategy approved by Congress, and we can carry out that strategy . . . but every earmark, if it isn't coaligned with that strategy, is a fiscal distraction."

As far as the future, Griffin said he understood that "members have specific interests, and we try to work with members," but $568.5 million was a bit much. What would he like instead? "I would like it to be a lower number," he said. "This is not a hard problem, guys."

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