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July 18th, 2008:

Culberson v. NASA

This ought to be fun to watch.

Two days after telling an online town hall meeting that NASA had “failed us miserably” and “wastes a vast amount of money,” Houston Rep. John Culberson said Thursday he was weighing legislation to overhaul the structure of the space agency, responsible for about 20,000 jobs in the Houston area.

Culberson, a blunt-spoken conservative from a heavily Republican westside district, said his proposal would slash NASA headquarters’ bureaucracy and enable scientists and engineers to rekindle visionary space exploration.

“We need revolutionary change, a complete restructuring,” Culberson told the Houston Chronicle. “NASA needs complete freedom to hire and fire based on performance; it needs to be driven by the scientists and the engineers, and it needs to be free of politics as much as possible.”

The fourth-term lawmaker said he was “kicking around” a proposal designed to make NASA more like the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency led by a director and a 24-member board appointed by the president.


Citing an essay by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently published in Aviation Week, the congressman said Gingrich is “quite right that NASA has failed us miserably.”

“There’s a lot of wonderful people working there,” said Culberson, “but NASA wastes a vast amount of money.”

Culberson’s criticisms of NASA provoked angry responses both from Houston-area Democrats and NASA defenders.

“It’s outrageous to suggest that the agency that put a man on the moon has somehow failed us,” said Culberson’s Democratic challenger, Michael Skelly. “I will always be a strong supporter of NASA.”

Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, whose congressional district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, declared that “now is not the time to take away the tools NASA will use to continue to carry out their mission.”

“Johnson Space Center is a jewel of Texas,” said Lampson. “It’s times like these when I’m relieved — and I know my constituents are relieved — that I’m the representative of JSC.”

Jeffrey E. Carr, spokesman for United Space Alliance, a Houston-based aerospace firm, said that NASA’s technology advances “have created countless industries, including a growing commercial space industry, spawned millions of jobs and generated billions of dollars into the economy, an immeasurable return on America’s investment.”

John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, challenged Culberson’s claim that the nation had little to show for NASA’s efforts over the past 50 years, adding that NASA had fulfilled what the White House and Congress requested and financed for decades.

“It’s easy to beat up on them because they’re at the end of the shuttle program, and they’ve been given inadequate funding by the administration and Congress to move forward with the new program for manned spaceflight,” Logsdon said.

I don’t have a whole lot of time to analyze this right now. NASA certainly isn’t above criticism, but I’ll bet Culberson winds up walking back on what he said. He’s going to get a lot of pushback on it, and I don’t think this is going to be a winning campaign issue for him. He may dig his heels in, which will make this even more fun, but I think he’ll be making some clarifications, if nothing else. Enjoy the spectacle in any event.

The other conventions

While Netroots Nation is going on here in Austin, there is another gathering – not as large, not as well known – also happening: RightOnline, which bills itself as “a meeting place for the free enterprise movement, focusing on how we can more effectively leverage the power of the internet and work together to achieve our common goals.” It’s kind of amusing watching our friends on the right try to play catchup in this arena. They of course haven’t needed to be a force in online activism, as their longstanding infrastructure of talk radio, compliant media such as Fox News, the Washington Times and Wall Street Journal, and the entire lovable gang at outlets like NewsMax and Townhall – not to mention being in control of the entire federal government for most of the past 7.5 years – has served them pretty well. Frankly, the best thing that could happen to their efforts is for a Barack Obama victory and unified Democratic control. It’s not a coincidence that progressives made all their gains in this sphere between 2003 and 2007 – there’s nothing like being an embattled minority to focus the attention and impose a unified sense of purpose. I can’t say I wish these guys luck, because I don’t, but I do expect that some time in the next few years, we’ll look at some things they’re doing and say “why aren’t we doing that?”

By the way, one of the RightOnline speakers is former State Rep. Ron Wilson, the uber Craddick Democrat who came in to the last legislative session as an enforcer after the parliamentarian and assistant parliamentarian were forced out for not agreeing with Craddick on the question of whether or not he had to recognize a privileged motion to call for a vote to oust him. He’ll fit fit in real well.

Oh, and one guy who has decided that he’d rather be here than there: David “Buck Smith” Beckwith. The dude just won’t leave us alone.

Also going on this weekend out in San Francisco is BlogHer, the community for women who blog. Local folks Julie and Jenny are out there, where it’s got to be a wee bit less hot. There’s supposed to be a video-linkup co-panel of some kind between the two today, but I can’t find the info for it offhand. Hopefully next year, BlogHer and NN can be on different weekends, so folks who might like to attend both can do so.

Netroots Nation, day 2

Day 2 of Netroots Nation got off to a slightly weird start for me, when I woke up and thought “my, it’s awfully bright”. I use my BlackBerry as my travel alarm clock, and as with yesterday, I had it set for 6:15 AM. Turns out it was almost 8 – not only had I slept through the alarm, but my backup system – that is, Audrey – was still asleep as well. I can’t tell you the last time I got to sleep in this late, though had I been given the choice, I’d have picked a different day for it. Oh, well. On the plus side, nothing makes you feel AWAKE like eight solid hours’ sleep.

I was at the Rick Noriega/Turn Texas Blue/TDP/Texans for Obama/TexBlog PAC party last night, which was well-attended. Noriega was the guest of honor, of course, and he got a raucous introduction from Gen. Wes Clark, who was in turn was introduced by Rep. Lloyd Doggett. I got a few photos of that, but thanks to my slovenliness this morning, I haven’t had the time to upload them yet. The buzz at the event last night was the big fundraiser Noriega had had in Dallas the night before.

Comparing his battle for the Senate to David’s rumble against Goliath, Democrat Rick Noriega held a fundraiser in Dallas on Wednesday night that attracted nearly 700 people.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark gave a keynote speech for Democrat Rick Noriega in Dallas. Before the event, he explained remarks he made about John McCain. “We recognize that it’s an uphill fight,” Mr. Noriega said of his race against Sen. John Cornyn. As of June 30, Mr. Noriega had just $916,000 in cash, compared with the Republican’s $9.4 million.

“If it has to be all about money, then we shouldn’t have elections,” he said.

The fundraiser featured retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former presidential candidate who was criticized this month for saying John McCain’s service in Vietnam didn’t qualify him to be president.

Before Wednesday’s event, Gen. Clark explained that remark. He said military service is “a wonderful test of your character and what it means about your willingness to sacrifice for the country.” But, he said, judgment is also important.

In his speech, Mr. Noriega took a shot at his rival, saying, “John Cornyn’s record in the Senate has made it hard to be hopeful. This nation, this state, is on the wrong course.”

I’m told the event raised well over $100,000, which is welcome news. As we know by Noriega’s success on ActBlue, the grassroots folks have strongly supported him. He’s also gotten quite a bit of support from national Democrats such as Clark, and other Senators like Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Barbara Boxer, and Ken Salazar, not to mention Harry Reid. It’s been the traditional Texas Democratic donors, as documented in that John Spong article from Texas Monthly, who have lagged behind. Maybe now this is finally starting to change. It’ll be about time if so.

I’m sitting in the Lone Star Candidates 08 session, which is one of three going on at 9 AM that I’d like to see – Noriega is speaking as I type this. I’ll probably sneak out at some point to visit the Different Tones and Wider Nets panel, but that’s as much multi-tasking for now. My panel is at 3. At least I can feel confident I won’t be nodding off midway through it.

UPDATE: Vince Leibowitz, who is emceeing this panel, has just observed that the interloper in our midst is here in the audience for this panel. I think that’s him sitting about ten feet away from me, with a really sweet video camera, no doubt hoping for a “macaca moment”. On behalf of the Texas Progressive Alliance, may I say “welcome to Netroots Nation”. Have fun, and be sure to attend the Pub Quiz this evening.

Bloomberg on Houston

The recent spate of favorable stories about Houston continues with this Bloomberg entry.

Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, hasn’t had a new downtown luxury apartment tower in four decades.

That will change next year, when One Park Place opens. The $125 million, 37-story building will have 346 units, charging monthly rents as high as $7,000. The $170 million Houston Pavilions, opening in October, will have offices, shops, a bowling alley and a restaurant owned by the family of Houston Rockets basketball player Yao Ming.

Developers of the two projects are taking on the challenge of boosting the city center’s population of 4,000 and enticing commuters to stay for activities after the business day ends. About 200,000 people work, shop or run errands each weekday in downtown Houston, a landscape of vacant storefronts on Main Street and acres of parking lots interspersed with skyscrapers.

“I think it’s going to all happen, and it’s going to happen in a hurry,” said Kathleen Hayes, 58, a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. who plans to move into One Park Place with her husband in March. “It’s almost like popcorn.”


The timing is right for Houston, said Mayor Bill White.

“People are wanting to live closer to where they work,” White said. “To build street-level retail, you need residences. To attract residences, you need street-level retail.”

Three downtown projects with residential space are being discussed, he said. More offices are on the way: Houston-based Hines is developing the 46-story MainPlace, which will house offices of KPMG LLP, and Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. is building the 30-story Discovery Tower, near the new Discovery Green park.

The advantage of living closer to his job is obvious to Cody Austin, an application consultant for Aveva Inc., a developer of software for the energy industry. He plans to move to One Park Place to reduce the $600-a-month cost of gasoline and tolls to reach his office in the western part of the city from Clear Lake, about 45 miles southeast.

“Why not put the money that I’m spending toward gas toward living in a nicer place?” said Austin, 22. “And I’ve always wanted to live downtown.”

Skeptics say it will take years to reverse decades of neglecting downtown development in Houston, which sprawls over twice the area of New York.

“For 30 years, we’ve built just the opposite — we’ve built away from the urban core,” said Michael Shine, president of Texas Food Group, who has invested in downtown restaurants. “I think it’s going to take us 20 or 30 years.”

I think Hayes is more right than Shine, mostly because there’s still a lot of space near downtown that is ripe for redevelopment – east of 59, farther out in Midtown, between Houston Avenue and Sawyer north of the Old Sixth Ward, to name three such places. I think we’ve come a long way on this already, as anyone who remembers what “Midtown” looked like circa 20 years ago can attest. And I think it will be very good for Houston, though it will require some different thinking to make it all work in this urban context. I like where we’re going from here. Link via Ryan Avent.