Babin Reintroduces Commercial Space Bill

Babin Reintroduces Commercial Space Bill

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) has reintroduced the American Free Enterprise Space Commerce Act.  It is identical to a bill he introduced in the last Congress that passed the House by voice vote, but was never voted on by the Senate.  Instead the Senate passed a different bill, the Space Frontier Act, but it was defeated in the House.  That has left congressional action on a range of commercial space issues such as modernizing existing regulations and deciding which Cabinet Department should be assigned new regulatory responsibilities in limbo.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) at a recent congressional hearing on NASA issues. Screengrab June 11, 2019.

In the last Congress, Babin chaired the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and Lamar Smith chaired the full committee. The Smith-Babin bill cleared the committee June 8, 2017 after a contentious markup.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who then was Ranking Member of the full committee, offered a substitute amendment that would have assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional space activities to the FAA instead of the Department of Commerce as provided in the bill. She later withdrew the amendment saying that she realized she did not have the votes for it to pass.

The bill cleared the committee by a voice vote that day and the House by voice vote almost a year later on April 24, 2018.  However, Rep. Ami Bera, then the Ranking Member of the subcommittee, listed a number of changes Democrats hoped to make as the bill proceeded through the legislative process.

Now, with the change in party control of the House, Johnson chairs the full committee and Babin is the Ranking Member of the subcommittee.  Johnson could not be reached today for comment on Babin’s reintroduction of the bill.  The House is in recess for the July 4 holiday except for pro forma sessions like the one yesterday where Babin introduced the bill (H.R. 3610).

In a press release today, Babin said the bill is identical to what passed the House last year “without opposition” and “with widespread support from stakeholder groups.”

Babin also introduced a House Resolution (H.Res. 473) that declares that space launch is a developmental activity, not a form of transportation, and a process exists for investigating commercial space launch reentry activities.  Babin did not mention it in his press release and no further details are available at this time.  House Resolutions pertain to internal House matters or express the sense of the House on a particular topic.  They do not become law. This resolution may relate to a jurisdictional issue between committees.

Historically House SS&T has overseen commercial space transportation issues, but it was a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), who derailed the Space Frontier Act last December.  Then the Ranking Member and now the chairman of that committee, DeFazio objected that the bill did not address aviation issues such as how space launch and reentry activities interfere with the safety of airline operations.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaking on the Senate floor, Dec.20, 2018. Screengrab.

The version of the Space Frontier Act that DeFazio scuttled was a compromise between the Smith-Babin bill and the Senate bill sponsored by Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL). It passed the Senate on December 20, 2018, one of the last days of the 115th Congress.

It was quite different from the Smith-Babin bill, especially in punting on the issue of whether the FAA or the Department of Commerce should be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional space activities.  House SS&T committee leaders Smith and Johnson reluctantly supported the bill when it was debated on the House floor the next day, but clearly hoped it would pass to make at least some progress on resolving some commercial space issues such as modernizing commercial remote sensing regulations, a long-sought goal of that industry.

Cruz has now reintroduced that bill in the Senate (S. 919).  It cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation  Committee in April and Cruz unsuccessfully attempted to get it attached to the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed the Senate last week.

At the moment, then, the House and Senate are back to where they were last fall with their different approaches to dealing with these issues in legislation that is on the table, even if the future is unclear.

Much has changed in Congress since last year.  Democrats now control the House and three of the key members who played a large role in these debates no longer are in Congress:  Smith, Nelson, and former Congressman and current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Others are still there, however, though some in different positions. Johnson and DeFazio now chair the committees of which they were Ranking Members, and Babin is subcommittee Ranking Member instead of chairman. Cruz continues to chair the space subcommittee in the Senate.  A number of members who will be important to the commercial space debate are new to Congress or new to their committee positions: Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the House SS&T Space and Aeronautics subcommittee; Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Ranking Member of the full House SS&T Committee, who has been on the committee for many years, but was not vocal on these issues in the last Congress; Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee; and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Aviation and Space Subcommittee.

What role the House T&I committee wants to play could also be key to what happens next.  Until DeFazio organized the opposition to the Space Frontier Act last December, T&I had not been very active on commercial space transportation.  That is changing.  A Republican member of T&I’s Aviation Subcommittee, Rep. Ross Spano (R-FL), succeeded in adding $8 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) during House consideration of the FAA’s FY2020 appropriations bill two weeks ago. If the Senate agrees, that would raise FAA/AST’s budget from $25 million to $33 million, a substantial increase.

That undoubtedly is welcome news to FAA/AST and the industry it supports, but with a greater number of members and committees involved in these issues, reaching compromise may be that much more difficult.

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