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NSRC 2020

 
Josh Bolten
The letter last month by OMB director Josh Bolten (above) threatening a veto of a budget bill unless NASA budget cuts are reversed is a sign that the administration still takes the exploration vision seriously. (credit: White House)

The veto threat

The extraordinary threat by the White House to veto the VA-HUD budget bill unless NASA is properly funded is a first in American political history. There is no record of LBJ, let alone any other President, threatening to veto a budget bill because NASA did not get what it needed. It is a characteristic of this administration that they take a frustratingly long time to make up their minds but, when they do come up with a policy, they stick to it. It took them three years to come up with the Moon-Mars vision but, now that they have, they seem to be determined to support it.

If they do see this through to the final passage of the fiscal year 2005 budget, they will have laid down an important marker, not just for this administration, but for all subsequent ones. A proposed NASA budget can be successfully pushed through Congress if the President and his people are willing to make the effort, and if they have the political stomach for the fight. In the past, particularly in the time of George H.W. Bush, Congress imposed savage cuts on NASA and dared the administration to do anything about it. The White House, particularly the Budget Director, Dick Darman, retreated in disarray in the face of this show of aggressiveness. This time, the White House is threatening a veto and, with the support of the House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, they will be able to sustain it.

It took the Bush Administration three years to come up with the Moon-Mars vision but, now that they have, they seem to be determined to support it.

The bill that came out of the House Appropriations Committee, which cut $1.1 billion from the Bush Administration’s NASA request is simply not serious. However, the virtue of the way that the vision is structured allows for the program to go forward, even if the cuts were to stand. The dates would have to be pushed back, but the broad outlines of the program would survive. Many important competitive national benefits, however, would be lost. The support that a robust and imaginative space program provides to the US aerospace industry is of inestimable value. With US industry now being beaten down by the highly subsidized Europeans, anything that helps the US industry to regain its edge is desperately needed. The Congress can no longer afford to sit idly while tens of thousands of good, high-paying jobs in a strategic industry are lost.

The claim that the extra money for NASA is unaffordable in the current budget is one that could be made in any year, from any Congress, about any administration request. In fact, fully funding the NASA budget and the other science and advanced technology programs, along with continued high levels of support for education, is the only way the government will be able to come close to meeting its obligations to pay for Social Security and Medicare over the next few decades.

Unless the productivity of the American economy and of America’s workers can be increased by at least an order of magnitude, there is going to be a major disaster. NASA, and the rest of the research budget, contribute to the US economy in several direct and indirect ways. It does so directly by financing the development of new technologies that feed into the nation’s industries. These so-called “spinoffs,” a bad term for the process, have been shown, in some studies, to pay for the entire NASA budget.

The indirect results for education and for what is now termed “workforce development” are even more important than the spinoffs. This is a difficult subject to quantify. It is easy to be negative, but history shows that, when the government cuts back on its overall R&D, the negative effects are felt with a few years.

The best case in point is what happened during and after the Nixon Administration, when not only was NASA’s budget gutted, but the DoD’s R&D budget was cut as well. The lag in overall US productivity, seen in the late seventies as part of the era of “stagflation,” (inflation plus recession) can be attributed, in large part, to the cuts in overall R&D that took place in the late sixties and early seventies.

Historically, investing in knowledge has always provided above-average returns. The President’s veto threat may be unprecedented, but it is based on sound investment principles and on solid historical evidence.

Since then, the government has, for the most part, kept up a healthy level of research spending and, in the life sciences area, it has more than tripled, with the effect of making America, by far, the world’s leader in this area. The Bush Administration has been stepping on the science and engineering accelerator in its first two years. They supported a bill to double the budget of the National Science Foundation and other major increases in these areas, but not for NASA.

This has lead to accusations that the Administration has been “spending money like a drunken sailor.” It is in these areas, along with education, that the major non-defense/ homeland security, increases in spending have taken place. Of course, by comparison, the Medicare drug bill makes these increases look like petty change. Yet, the only hope of paying for the Medicare bill and the other entitlements is for US private sector and government investments in R&D to pay off big time. This is not a foolish bet. Historically, investing in knowledge has always provided above-average returns. The President’s veto threat may be unprecedented, but it is based on sound investment principles and on solid historical evidence.


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