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House Science Committee hearing
Members of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee met July 10 to consider a NASA authorization bill, which it approved on a party-line vote. (credit: House Science Committee)

NASA policy gets partisan

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NASA, conventional wisdom goes, has traditionally been an issue that has transcended—or, perhaps, has simply been not important enough to warrant—typical partisan politics. That is to say, there have not been strictly Democrat-versus-Republican debates about what NASA should be doing, or how much it should spend, as there are on many other, higher profile issues. There have been such debates in the past, of course, but they have typically been on geographic rather than party lines: states with NASA centers or other aerospace presence either fighting for NASA or fighting with each other over programs and budgets.

“This is not a bill ready for markup,” Johnson said of the proposed House NASA authorization bill. “This is a flawed draft, starting from its funding assumptions, and I cannot support it in its present form.”

This year, though, is different. As Congress departed at the end of last week for a five-week summer break, it left behind two very different versions of NASA authorization legislation that had been approved on party-line votes by respective committees in the House and the Senate. Also awaiting action are two versions of Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bills that fund NASA among other agencies. Those bills, awaiting action by the full House and Senate, are more than a billion dollars apart in the money they would provide NASA in fiscal year 2014.

Those partisan tensions over NASA became very evident in mid-June, when the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee released a “discussion draft” of a NASA authorization bill, the first such bill since the passage of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. At a hearing about the proposed bill, held by the space subcommittee June 19, Democratic members of the subcommittee raised concerns about the bill, authored by the Republican majority, including both the overall funding level for NASA—$16.8 billion in fiscal year 2014 and the same in 2015—and a steep cut in earth sciences spending in particular. The draft bill also included a provision blocking spending on the administration’s asteroid initiative, including planning for a mission to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The draft bill “doesn’t contain funding commensurate with the tasks NASA has been asked to undertake,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee. “This is not a bill ready for markup. This is a flawed draft, starting from its funding assumptions, and I cannot support it in its present form.”

That same day, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, raised his own concerns about the House bill. “I’m not going to approve of keeping it at 16.8 [billion dollars], because it would run the space program and NASA into a ditch,” he said at a luncheon held by the Space Transportation Association, referring to the House’s proposed spending level. He didn’t say at the time what funding level he’d offer for NASA in the Senate’s version of that spending bill, but said it would support “a balanced program” for the agency.

Nelson also warned in his speech about the intrusion of partisan politics into NASA. “The space program was always not bipartisan, it was nonpartisan,” he said. “The question is, are we going to have the ability to mark up a NASA authorization bill other than is it going to be a partisan vote?” He said he was prepared to pass a Senate version relying solely on the Democratic majority in the Senate, but hoped that wouldn’t be necessary. (Nelson, while hoping for a bipartisan solution to NASA policy and funding, wasn’t above a partisan zinger or two himself in that speech, warning attendees, “If you want to play footsie with the Tea Party, you may as well say sayonara to our manned space program and unmanned space program.”)

As House Republicans prepared to formally introduce their NASA authorization bill in early July, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, offered an alternative. Speaking July 8 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), she announced plans to introduce an alternative NASA authorization bill. It would authorize $18.1 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2014, increasing it to $18.87 billion by fiscal year 2016 (her bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Johnson and several other Democrats, was a three-year authorization, while Republicans were planning only a two-year bill.)

“The space program was always not bipartisan, it was nonpartisan,” Nelson said. “The question is, are we going to have the ability to mark up a NASA authorization bill other than is it going to be a partisan vote?”

It did not contain the asteroid initiative prohibition that the Republican bill did, and also specifically set a goal of a human mission to Mars, which Edwards said in her CSIS speech should be carried out by 2030, a more aggressive timeline than what President Obama proposed in his April 2010 Kennedy Space Center speech, when he called for a human mission to orbit Mars in the mid-2030s. “If we commit today to reach Mars by 2030, we’ll have more than a 15-year funding profile for planning and development to meet the challenges of accomplishing a complex mission,” she said.

Edwards used the subcommittee markup of the majority version of the NASA authorization bill on July 10 to introduce her own version as an amendment. Republicans opposed her version primarily because of the higher funding levels it authorized. “Our goal is to bring a workable bill that can pass both houses,” said Rep. Stephen Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee. “The reality is, if we ignore the Budget Control Act, which many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle voted for, the bill is dead on arrival in both the House and the Senate.”

The Budget Control Act of 2011, the legislation that Palazzo referred to, is best known for the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that took effect earlier this year after previous efforts to reduce federal budget deficits failed. Palazzo argued that the bill was designed as part of broader efforts to reduce spending sufficiently to avoid a second round of sequester-induced cuts in fiscal year 2014.

However, Edwards argued that, since this was an authorization bill with no actual funding attached (authorization bills set policy and authorize spending, but the actual funds come from separate appropriations bills), the bill did not have to comply with the Budget Control Act. “I’ve yet to find anything in the Budget Control Act that stipulates what funding committees can authorize, because the Budget Control Act doesn’t limit authorization in any way,” she said. “You can be fiscally conservative and still support this amendment.”

Edwards specifically lobbied two subcommittee members with NASA centers in their districts, Reps. Mo Brooks (R-AL) and Bill Posey (R-FL), noting that her bill authorized additional funding for programs associated with the Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. Neither, though, were swayed by her proposal. “I like the additional funding that is in the minority proposal for the Marshall Space Flight Center and for NASA generally,” Brooks said. “However, it is financially irresponsible because the minority does not come up with a way to pay for it.” Edwards’s amendment was defeated on a straight party line vote by the subcommittee, with all the Republicans voting against it and all the Democrats voting for it. The subcommittee then approved the bill, again on party lines.

Eight days later, the full House Science Committee took up the NASA authorization bill, which had undergone only minor changes since that original discussion draft in June. Edwards again introduced an amendment to replace the bill with her version. However, committee Democrats also introduced nearly three dozen other amendments, some that sought to change funding levels for specific programs in the bill and others that addressed issues in areas like earth sciences research and space technology. This caused the hearing to stretch out for several hours, from shortly before noon through late afternoon, with many roll call votes on various amendments.

The arguments, when it came to funding, were the same at the subcommittee hearing the previous week. “The NASA Authorization Act offers us the opportunity to set goals and establish priorities for the greatest space program in the world. That is our responsibility: to take the initiative, make decisions, and govern,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee. He and other Republicans argued the bill had to comply with the spending levels of the Budget Control Act to have any chance at passage.

In the end, most of the amendments failed, often on straight or nearly straight party-line votes, as Republican committee members voted against them and Democrats voted for them. A few relatively non-controversial amendments passed on voice votes, and Democrats did win one roll call vote: an amendment by Johnson to delete a provision in the bill that would have given the NASA administrator a fixed six-year term passed when three Republicans—Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (CA), James Sensenbrenner (WI), and Steve Stockman (TX)—voted for the amendment along with the committee Democrats. The bill itself also passed on a strict party-line vote.

“This is my first NASA authorization bill, and being a senator from Florida, that means a lot,” Rubio said. “It’s unfortunate that my first vote on this may be a partisan one.”

A similar debate played out in the Senate over its version of a NASA authorization bill, although with the roles of the Democrats and Republicans reversed. A day before the House Science Committee marked up its bill, Sen. Nelson announced that he had introduced an authorization bill in the Senate. “You will see a robust approach, a balanced approach” for NASA in the bill, he said in a luncheon talk at the Future Space 2013 conference in Washington, where he announced his plans to introduce the bill.

Nelson’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, authorized $18.1 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2014, increasing to $18.83 billion by fiscal year 2016. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill contains no prohibition on funding NASA’s asteroid initiative, but does call on NASA to develop an “exploration strategy” that describes how NASA would perform its exploration goals, including sending humans to Mars. It also requires NASA to perform a study on extending the life of the ISS to “at least 2028” and another report on its plans to shift to conventional contracts for future phases of its commercial crew development program.

Last Tuesday, the full Senate Commerce Committee took up the bill in a session where it also considered nearly two dozen other pieces of legislation and nominations. While the committee approved most of the other items on the agenda on a single voice vote, the NASA bill got special scrutiny. Several Republican members of the committee introduced an amendment that would have lowered the authorized spending levels in the bill in order to comply with the Budget Control Act.

“This authorization disregards the Budget Control Act,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in introducing his amendment. “Proceeding with an authorization while pretending that the existing law is something other than what it is, is not the most effective way to protect the priority that space exploration and manned exploration should have.” He was concerned automatic cuts from sequestration would prevent what he considered to be a proper rebalancing of priorities for NASA.

Nelson disagreed. “This legislation does not violate the Budget Control Act,” he said. “The authorizing committees are free to set their agency budgets, and that includes NASA. Authorization of appropriations has no impact on the BCA limits.”

Nelson also defended his handling of the bill from claims by Republicans that the committee’s consideration of the bill was rushed, with the full committee taking up the bill less than two weeks after its introduction and without a markup by the space subcommittee. “I want to put to rest that this thing hasn’t been considered,” he said, noting his subcommittee held several hearings on NASA this year, but few members other than himself and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Cruz, participated.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the backers of the amendment, acknowledged the debate put him into a difficult position. “This is my first NASA authorization bill, and being a senator from Florida, that means a lot,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that my first vote on this may be a partisan one.”

That was, though, exactly how it turned out. The committee rejected the Republican amendment on a straight party-line vote, then approved the bill on a straight party-line vote—just as Nelson predicted more than a month earlier.

In contrast to the debates over the NASA authorization bills, the discussions in the House and Senate on the CJS appropriations bills that would fund the agency have been far more collegial. However, there are stark differences in the two bills. The House bill, approved by the CJS appropriations subcommittee with little debate on July 10 and by the full appropriations committee a week later, would give NASA $16.6 billion, more than a billion dollars less than the administration requested and more than $260 million below the level in the House authorization bill. The House trimmed funding in several areas, including commercial crew, space technology, and science, although it provides slightly more for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs that the administration’s request, and, within science, additional funds for planetary science.

“It’s the first time that I can remember that votes on NASA budgets and NASA issues have been done on a partisan basis,” Bolden said.

Senate appropriators, though, were more generous, including $18 billion for NASA in its CJS bill, nearly $300 million more than the administration’s request. “These funds will give NASA the ability to maintain key schedules for ongoing missions and activities, including development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle while funding ongoing activities of the International Space Station and other important research activities,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of both the CJS appropriations subcommittee and the full committee, during the subcommittee’s markup of the bill July 16.

Shelby, though, voted against the bill because he felt the overall funding in the bill was too high. “For that reason, and that reason alone, I will vote against the bill at the full committee,” he said. The bill, though, did pass the full committee on a 21–9 vote.

This highly partisan debate has not gone unnoticed at NASA. “It’s the first time that I can remember that votes on NASA budgets and NASA issues have been done on a partisan basis,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a presentation to the NASA Advisory Council last Wednesday, a day after the Senate Commerce Committee markup of its authorization bill. In the past, he claimed, “you got almost universal support for what NASA’s doing.”

“Universal” support might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s clear that the debate has become more partisan than in the past. “It surprises me to be bringing a sour note into a NASA reauthorization bill,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) during the Senate Commerce Committee markup, noting that the agency has traditionally been treated in a bipartisan manner in the committee.

“This committee has a long history of bipartisan support for NASA, and Republican members have in the past been fierce advocates for a robust and ambitious space program for the nation,” Johnson said at the July 18 House Science Committee markup, explaining that she didn’t oppose the bill simply because it was a Republican measure. “Yet this NASA authorization bill breaks with that proud tradition, and I frankly am at a loss to understand why.”

So how did NASA policy become a partisan issue? Some speculate that NASA is simply caught in a broader partisan debate, particularly between the Democratic administration and Republican-led House. Other House Science Committee hearings have been contentious as well, including one last week where it voted on party lines to approve a subpoena to the EPA for what Republican members called the “secret science” used for its air quality regulations—the first such subpoena by the committee in more than two decades.

“At the start of this Congress, I had high hopes that you would lead us in a bipartisan fashion, as befits the history of the committee,” Johnson told Smith at that hearing. “I have been sorely disappointed. This subpoena resolution is the culmination of a year of hyperpartisan activity, which is unprecedented for our committee.”

Regardless of the cause, that partisan atmosphere doesn’t bode well for reaching deals on either a spending bill or a NASA authorization bill. With the House and Senate far apart in their respective appropriations bills, NASA and most, if not all, of the federal government is likely to start the 2014 fiscal year this October on a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the agency at 2013 levels. If a broader deal on spending between Republicans and Democrats can’t be worked out, that CR could last the whole year, along with another round of sequestration that could, by some estimates, reduce the agency’s 2014 budget to less than $16.2 billion.

As for an authorization, the vast gap between the House and Senate bills leave many to wonder if any compromise is possible. An authorization bill is not strictly required: the policies laid out in previous authorization bills, such as the one enacted in 2010, do not expire, and NASA has often gone without a formal authorization bill in the past. Also, unlike 2010, when there was a heated debate about the future of NASA’s exploration program, there is no driving issue of similar significance or urgency in 2013. With so little, relatively speaking, at stake, there may be little incentive by the House and Senate to transcend partisan disputes and come to an agreement on what NASA funding and policies should be.