Administrative State

A Government Coup by NASA’s Bureaucracy


- May 21st, 2019
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The recent revelations in connection with the Russian-collusion scam as well as the efforts in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA to spy on the Trump campaign and then work to overturn his 2016 victory have led many observers to conclude we’ve just witnessed a failed coup. As The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway noted in April:

The fact of the matter is that federal intelligence agencies spied on a rival political campaign. They illegally leaked information about that surveillance. They abused their authority to at best undermine the duly elected president and at worst to attempt a soft coup against him. They did so with the near-total cooperation of the American media establishment.

This is a scandal of epic proportions. It is one that threatens the foundations of constitutional government. It is a direct attack on American democracy.

Yet, while cleaning house in the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department might do much to squelch any future power grabs from those quarters, it appears it will do little to end the unchecked expansion of power by the unelected federal bureaucracy. The general historical trend this scandal epitomizes and makes evident continues unabated throughout the entire federal government, and unless we take a wider view we are guaranteed to see similar coup attempts in the future.

An Unprecedented Big Government Venture
As only one example, NASA’s new project, Lunar Gateway, illustrates the increased and unchecked power of the federal bureaucracy quite starkly, but it does so without any of the partisan politics that surround the scandals involving Trump.

First, the Lunar Gateway space station that NASA wants to build and occupy intermittently in lunar orbit is an entirely unprecedented big government project, and it is unprecedented in a way that no one recognizes.

Consider the history of all past big government space projects. When we went to the moon in the 1960s, the entire program was proposed publicly by John F. Kennedy, an elected president, and approved and budgeted by an elected Congress.

When we built the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, the project was proposed publicly by Richard Nixon, an elected president, and approved and budgeted by an elected Congress.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan, an elected president, publicly proposed we build a space station he dubbed “Freedom.” An elected Congress reluctantly approved it, though subsequent elected Congresses repeatedly tinkered with the project.

Then, in the 1990s, Bill Clinton, elected like all the rest, revised the station to make it an “international” project, and the elected Congresses of the time approved and provided a budget, after considerable debate and discussion.

In 2004, George Bush, an elected president, publicly proposed that we go back to the moon, and that we build a new heavy-lift rocket and manned capsule to make that happen. Congress then approved the project.

When the next elected president, Barack Obama, tried unilaterally to cancel this project, then known as Constellation, Congress objected and mandated that the rocket and capsule be built. Obama eventually reluctantly agreed, though he then reshaped Constellation into what we now call the Space Launch System (SLS).

Orion, the capsule that would fly either on Constellation or SLS, was also proposed by an elected president, Bush, endorsed by the elected president who followed, Obama, and funded by elected Congresses from 2004 through to the present.

Breaking With Elected Accountability
Every single big space project since the founding of NASA has always been proposed and approved by elected officials. NASA officials might have lobbied for one version or another, but always, always, it was understood and accepted that the project did not exist without first getting an enthusiastic and very public authorization from elected officials.

What was understood without question was that the right to make these fundamental policy decisions belonged only to the lawmakers, elected as they were by the citizenry under the Constitution.

NASA’s new Lunar Gateway project, however, is something altogether different. It was conceived, designed, and proposed by the big aerospace companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing as a justification for the continuing construction of SLS and Orion. It was added as a budget line item by NASA bureaucrats who supported it, and it now exists as a growing major space project comparable to Apollo, the Space Shuttle, ISS, and SLS/Orion.

Yet no president has ever officially and publicly proposed the Lunar Gateway. No Congress ever reviewed or endorsed the program. All these elected officials have done is simply to accept the will of NASA bureaucrats and large aerospace contractors, and rubber-stamp that line item in NASA’s budget.

Thus, unlike all past big space projects, Gateway stands alone as the only one to be proposed and approved not by our elected officials, but by the vendors who will build it and by the unelected NASA bureaucrats who will manage it.

Worse, Gateway’s growing year-by-year funding and development is being controlled not by lawmakers or the president but by those very same bureaucrats. Eric Berger published an analysis on April 30 at Ars Technica of the political situation surrounding SLS, Orion, Gateway, and the Trump Administration’s desire to return to the moon by 2024. Berger outlines clearly the power of this unelected bureaucracy in getting Gateway funded and built:

At NASA headquarters, [human spaceflight chief Bill] Gerstenmaier and this team that plays a central role in developing policy for the space agency are likely content to play a waiting game. Without an increased budget he can continue to spend money on developing the SLS rocket for some future launch date and begin procuring elements of the Lunar Gateway. He can make some small investments in a lunar lander but doesn’t have to commit to its development before the end of next year, which may bring a new president and new priorities. (Emphasis mine.)

How does Bill Gerstenmaier have the right to “develop policy for the space agency?” What constitutional authority gives him the right to “play a waiting game” while continuing to “spend money on developing the SLS rocket . . . and procuring elements of Lunar Gateway?” These are policy decisions that, by law, belong solely to Congress and the president, not to some unelected government bureaucrat.

Administrative Audacity
Gerstenmaier doesn’t have this power, legally. However, in the corrupt political world that now exists in Washington, Gerstenmaier has arrogated to himself more power to determine U.S. space policy than elected lawmakers are exercising.

The American public, as well as our elected officials, has apparently ceded lawmaking power to this unelected bureaucracy.

In this sense, Lunar Gateway is just another reflection of what happened in the Russian collusion scandal. Hired government officials with no legal authority decided that the choice of the electorate in the 2016 election was wrong, that they knew what was truly best for the nation, and because of this arrogant belief they somehow had the right to use their power to overturn the results.

Nor were the unelected officials in the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and NASA alone in this. There have been numerous stories in the past two years of federal employees in different agencies acting to sabotage Trump Administration initiatives, merely because they disagreed with them.

This trend is very dangerous, and signals a change that is not good for any free and democratic society.

In his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower predicted this precise historical power shift when he warned of “the military-industrial complex”:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

Eisenhower’s warning caused much consternation and generated a great deal of debate. For the next few decades, Americans and elected officials appeared cognizant of the danger of a power-grab by the bureaucracy and the big vendors they fund. The result was an effort to resist it, at least to some degree.

In the waning decades of the last century, however, that seemed to evaporate. In the first two decades of the present century no one, from the voters to elected officials, seems opposed to letting bureaucrats run the country unsupervised and unchecked.

We as Americans must once again act to put a stop to this audacious administrative overreach. As Eisenhower also said,

We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Paths of Real Resistance and Reform
Can our citizenry become once again become alert and knowledgeable? I am not sure. We can, however, move towards that goal by taking actions now in connection with these scandals.

First, governments officials who committed illegal acts in an effort to remove President Trump from office should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. While a house cleaning must happen in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA, these officials must also learn that trying to overthrow the government is a crime, and anyone who tries to do it will end up in prison.

Second, the Trump Administration must move to kill bureaucratic projects such as Gateway, immediately. While some might argue Gateway’s practical benefits, most of those arguments originate not from a desire by elected officials to serve the needs of the nation, but from the parochial needs of those bureaucrats and the specific companies that will benefit from its construction.

Those parochial needs almost always result in wasteful, overly complex, and impractical projects that are unable to accomplish their stated goals. And a close look at Gateway reveals exactly this. Based on NASA’s own estimates, it will be ungodly expensive to build, in the tens of billions, and will take forever to finish, at least one to two decades. And once completed, it will only be occupied intermittently.

Worse and more important, the money funneled into this orbiting lunar space station will squelch any American effort to land on the moon. While NASA bureaucrats build corporate empires in Washington and the Gateway contractors pocket billions, the nation will helplessly watch as the Chinese begin the exploration and settlement of the moon, building lunar bases at its most valuable real estate locations.

Killing Gateway would have another, far more significant political consequence: It would signal to the bureaucracy that the power of government does not belong to them alone, and that they must bow to the will of elected officials.

And despite the expected and almost routine corruption and unreliability of politicians, they at least are accountable to the voters, something that these unelected bureaucrats are not.

By taking bold action here, the Trump Administration can reclaim some of the power of government and put it where it belongs, in the hands of the lawmakers the Constitution and the sovereign people named to wield it.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

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