Sen. Bennett Goes AWOL on Key NASA Nomination

As the battle over earmarks heats up again in Congress, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) wants us to know his flag is firmly planted in the pro-earmarking camp. Like his colleague Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Sen. Bennett claims to have a far better understanding of his state’s needs than an “unelected bureaucrat” in Washington, D.C.

Two examples of this principle, according to Sen. Bennett, are Projects Constellation and Ares, Utah-based NASA space programs on the chopping block in the administration’s proposed NASA budget. To the senior congressional appropriator, the elimination of these programs is a perfect demonstration of what happens when unelected bureaucrats are granted too much power. What Sen. Bennett has not told his constituents is that when it came time for him to question the president’s nominee to lead NASA, the Utah Republican was nowhere to be found. Instead, he allowed the top NASA nominee to sail through the Senate by unanimous consent with zero debate about how the new administrator’s spending priorities might affect Utah.

While many lifelong appropriators instinctively point to Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution as proof that they are required by the Founders to appropriate a chicken in every pot and a Bridge to Nowhere in every state, they rarely mention Article II, Section 2, which gives them the authority and duty to question and confirm or reject presidential nominees. To the Founding Fathers, this was a major legislative check on the kind of runaway executive power decried by congressional appropriators. Unfortunately, many lawmakers ignore this clear constitutional duty in favor of an activity that gives them the opportunity to present friends and campaign donors with oversized novelty checks paid for by American taxpayers.

By all accounts, Maj. Gen Charles Frank Bolden, Jr. is supremely qualified to head NASA. He is a former astronaut and a highly decorated Marine. But given Sen. Bennett’s expressed desire to demand spending accountability from the legion of so-called unelected bureaucrats, it is all the more striking that he was missing in action when he had a clear opportunity to question the nominee about his views on certain ongoing NASA programs. Administrator Bolden was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on July 15, 2009, as was Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver. Only two lawmakers that day made floor statements about the administrators’ confirmations; Sen. Bennett was not one of them.

However, eight months after Administrator Bolden was confirmed without a peep from the Utah Senate delegation, Sen. Bennett informed the Deseret News that he “plans to push for earmarks” to save the Constellation and Ares programs.

“The president’s decision to cut these programs is a perfect example of what would happen if Congress gave up its constitutional authority to appropriate federal funding,” Bennett told the newspaper. He did not mention that it is also a perfect example of what would happen if a lawmaker abdicated his authority to question presidential nominees charged with developing the budgets of federal agencies.

Despite his complete absence from the NASA nomination proceedings, Sen. Bennett is no stranger to the tactic of blocking a nominee over his views on hot-button issues. For example, in June 2009 – just a month before the NASA administrator’s confirmation – Sen. Bennett blocked a Department of Interior nominee over Utah oil and gas leases. A search on the senator’s website for press releases about the top NASA nominee comes up short, and the senator released no statements upon the nomination or confirmation of Administrator Bolden.

You may be wondering what Sen. Bennett was up to when he chose to stay silent on the appointment of a man who had the power to shut down Utah-based space programs. It’s hard to say. But what is known is that Sen. Bennett collected $15,600 in campaign cash in the week leading up to Administrator Bolden’s confirmation according to a tally from OpenSecrets.org.

Of the 14 individual donations made to his campaign that week, only one came from somebody in Utah.