Administration Asks For Authority to Shift Money Within NASA to Pay for Moon Program

Administration Asks For Authority to Shift Money Within NASA to Pay for Moon Program

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said repeatedly that trying to take money from other parts of NASA to pay for the Artemis Moon program will set up political and parochial divides likely to doom the effort.  Yet that is exactly what the Trump Administration is asking permission to do.  The budget amendment not only requests $1.6 billion more for FY2020, but authority for the NASA Administrator to move money at his discretion this year, in future years, and from funds appropriated in prior years. It promises to be one of several sticking points in getting Congress to agree to accelerating a return to the Moon.

The language in the supplemental budget request would allow the NASA Administrator to transfer funds to support “establishment of a United States strategic presence on the Moon.”

Upon the determination of the Administrator that such action is necessary in support of establishment of a United States strategic presence on the Moon, the Administrator may, in this and subsequent fiscal years, transfer funds among appropriations available to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, including funds appropriated in prior Acts, to be available for the same purposes as the appropriation to which transferred: Provided, That no funds may be transferred from amounts that were designated by the Congress as an emergency requirement pursuant to the concurrent resolution on the budget or the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. — OMB FY2020 Supplemental Budget Request

The language would essentially usurp Congress’s duty under Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution to determine how tax dollars are spent:  “No money shall be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of the appropriations made by law.”

The Trump Administration is already challenging Congress with its decision to redirect money appropriated to DOD for specific purposes into building the border wall.  It appears this request for the NASA Administrator to be allowed to redirect money at his discretion into a Trump Administration-preferred program is in the same vein.

As a former Member of Congress, Bridenstine is intimately familiar with the role of Congress in funding the government.  He also has said repeatedly since the Moon-by-2024 goal was announced by Vice President Pence on March 26 that he understands the political perils of taking money from other parts of NASA to pay for it.  This provision is directly at odds with those comments.

Bridenstine has a more narrow interpretation of the language.  In a statement emailed to this afternoon, he said the “language is not intended to enable transfer of other funds within the agency to the lunar effort.  NASA will work with the Committees on Appropriation to ensure that this transfer authority is clearly limited to overall funding for the lunar effort.” (Bridenstine’s full statement appears at the end of this article.)

The requested authority does not have an end date, so would apply as long as NASA is involved in a Moon program, essentially in perpetuity under the leadership of countless future NASA Administrators.  Although appropriations bills expire after one year, once a provision like this is included, it often ends up repeated year after year.  A case in point is the “Wolf amendment” that restricts NASA’s cooperation with China.  Added to the appropriations bill for NASA first in 2011 for the FY2012 appropriations cycle, it has been included every subsequent year.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

In a statement yesterday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, characterized it as an “open-ended license to raid NASA’s other important mission areas whenever NASA’s Moon program needs money.”  She added that “most importantly, we know that a Moon program budget plan that is dependent on cancelling important NASA Science and Education programs, as this one has been, is not going to be sustainable.”

She and Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma), chair of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, also criticized the source of the additional $1.6 billion for NASA — Pell Grants at the Department of Education.  Those are grants for low- and middle-income students to attend college.

Bridenstine emphasized Monday evening when the budget amendment was released that the additional $1.6 billion money did not come from inside NASA, but insisted he did not know the source of the funds.

Johnson specifically said that taking money from Pell Grants to pay for the Moon program is “something I cannot support.”  Horn pointed out that getting back to the Moon needs “more scientists and engineers, not fewer” and “[w]e can’t sacrifice the pathway that many middle- and low-income families use to get their kids to college.”

The budget amendment asserts that the money — $1.871 billion in total — is coming from unobligated balances in the Pell Grant program.  It is addition to an existing request to cut Pell Grants by $2 million.  The Administration says there have been fewer applicants for Pell Grants since the economy began improving in 2011 so funding has “lasted longer than anticipated.”  It argues that reducing the funds in the program by $3.9 billion and “other proposed changes” will still provide sufficient funding for the program through 2023.

The President of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities wrote a strongly worded letter to Congress on May 14 opposing the $3.9 billion rescission of Pell Grant funds as “deeply misguided and contrary to the national interest.”

Johnson and Horn also complained that the Administration has not provided enough information about the Artemis Moon program for them to evaluate the supplemental request, such as the total cost or the technical plan to achieve a human landing on the Moon by 2024.  That said, they both support human exploration of the Moon and Mars and will withhold judgment until NASA provides more details.

In his own statement, the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), expressed support for the request.  He did not comment on the prospect of a NASA Administrator’s ability to shift money within the agency or the source of the additional funds.  He praised the “budget neutral” request that gives NASA a “down payment” on achieving the Moon-by-2024 goal while pointing out that NASA itself acknowledges that “more information and more funding will be needed.”   He vowed to work with the Administration and Congress to make the necessary investments “to send American astronauts to the Moon and ultimately to Mars.”

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee will markup its FY2020 appropriations bill tomorrow.  It is just the first step in the lengthy appropriations process, but should provide insight into how the Democratic-controlled committee views the request.

Statement by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to regarding the requested transfer authority, May 16, 2019:

The President’s Budget Amendment does not rely on any offsets within existing NASA programs to enable U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon by 2024, and I have stated publicly that I have no intent of redirecting funding from other NASA programs, including Science, in support of the human lunar return effort. The intent of the proposed transfer language is to provide the NASA Administrator maximum flexibility, within the funds allocated, in support of establishing a U.S. strategic presence on the Moon in the most effective and efficient way possible. The language is not intended to enable transfer of other funds within the agency to the lunar effort.

NASA will work with the Committees on Appropriation to ensure that this transfer authority is clearly limited to overall funding for the lunar effort.  — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine


Note: This article has been updated with the statement from Bridenstine and a clarification about the duration of appropriations bills.

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