On Friday, the U.S. Congress made sure that France Córdova and several other scientists would be spending the holidays with family and friends rather than house-hunting in Washington, D.C.
Córdova, a 65-year-old astrophysicist, was nominated on 31 July to be the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But the process of having the U.S. Senate confirm a president’s choices to serve in his administration is broken. And even though Córdova and her colleagues aren’t the ones who have fueled the recent headline-grabbing congressional battles over presidential nominees, the fallout has slowed the process for everyone.
In Córdova’s case, her nomination is so noncontroversial that the Senate panel responsible for vetting her, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), didn’t even hold a hearing on her qualifications and plans to run the $7 billion agency. Still, it took the Democratic-led panel until last Wednesday—some 140 days after her name was announced—to give its approval. And that step came during an emergency session conducted in an anteroom off the Senate floor, as legislators rushed to complete work on an overall budget deal and a spending plan for the Department of Defense before taking a 2-week recess.
“NSF had advised me a while ago that the most likely scenario was [approval] in time for the December recess,” Córdova tells ScienceInsider from her home in Santa Fe. “The HELP committee asked a number of very fair questions, and I had the opportunity to discuss my answers” with members and committee staff during a visit this fall to Washington.
Córdova said she understands how the process works. But she still sounded wistful. “The unexpected thing was that they didn’t go ahead with a floor vote.”
In past years, “routine” nominations such as Córdova’s often have been bundled together and adopted by unanimous consent by the full Senate during a break from other business. But the political atmosphere surrounding nominations is so poisonous at the moment that Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the majority leader, chose not to take that route.
Cordova hasn’t been waiting nearly as long as Ken Kopocis, who has been in line to head the water office at the Environmental Protection Agency since June 2011. He was voted out by the relevant Senate panel in September, but his nomination has stalled.
Several other nominees who took the penultimate step to their jobs well before Córdova are still awaiting confirmation. Frank Klotz, nominated 1 August to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration, was reported out in September by the Armed Services Committee. Elizabeth Robinson, chosen in July to be the first undersecretary for management at the Department of Energy (DOE), was reported out in October. On 12 November, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee reported out the nominations of Jo Handelsman and Robert Simon to oversee science/education and energy/environment programs, respectively, at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as Kathryn Sullivan to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (Sullivan, who was nominated on 1 August, has been acting NOAA administrator for 10 months.) Rose Gottemoeller, nominated in May to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was voted out by the foreign relations panel in October. (She’s already acting undersecretary.)
Finally, two scientists chosen only last month for DOE science posts came before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last week for their confirmation hearing. They are Marc Kastner, to lead the Office of Science, and Ellen Williams, to head the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Kastner was nominated on 14 November, and Williams on 6 November.
*Correction, 24 December, 10:30 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Elizabeth Robinson was nominated to be the first undersecretary of energy at the Department of Energy. She was nominated to be the first undersecretary for management.