With the space agency facing a severe "brain drain," NASA's chief urged Congress on Thursday to grant him broad powers to recruit and retain top scientists and engineers in one of his first legislative initiatives since the Columbia disaster.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe insisted that he had no evidence that personnel troubles led to the loss of the space shuttle on Feb. 1.
But he warned a Senate committee of "alarming" workforce trends that could jeopardize future projects. The agency, with many employees in their 60s and relatively few under age 30, expects a huge number of retirements in coming years and is having trouble recruiting new talent.
"These indicators could lead to a severe workforce crisis if we do not take prompt action," O'Keefe said.
Several months before the space shuttle catastrophe, NASA had sought relief from personnel rules -- with no success. Now, two senior GOP lawmakers are pledging to seek swift action on a NASA personnel bill similar to one that failed last year.
"We have to give NASA the flexibility, the incentives and the operational authority to retain and attract more of the best and brightest," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee. "The problem is, they're leaving in droves."
Under a bill Boehlert introduced this week after consulting with the agency, NASA would be granted temporary powers to help strengthen its workforce of 19,000 employees. For example, managers would be able to award bonuses of up to 50% of annual base pay to certain employees in critical positions and 25% to others. Maximum annual salaries for senior personnel would also be raised; up to 10 employees could be paid as much as Vice President Dick Cheney's salary of $198,600 a year. These and other powers would expire in six years.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who chaired the hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs management subcommittee, said he plans to introduce similar legislation soon.
The hearing showed that O'Keefe has a window of opportunity to move his priorities through a Congress eager to help the agency.
But personnel reform could prove challenging. Last year, legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security was delayed for months in a partisan dispute over expanded hiring and firing powers sought by the Bush administration.
Democrats at the time sided with organized labor in seeking to block provisions that unions viewed as skewed toward management. O'Keefe told reporters he has seen no sign yet of such political obstacles for his own proposal. No one -- Republican or Democrat -- opposed his ideas at Thursday's hearing.
This year, other federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, are seeking their own revisions to personnel rules.
"We're talking about a long list of agencies in need of repair," said David Marin, a spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over most federal personnel issues.
"Government-wide, we're having serious trouble retaining and recruiting highly skilled workers."
Marin said the committee's chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), would like to wrap proposed reforms into a larger bill rather than one specific to NASA. That could slow O'Keefe's initiative.