Can Ted Cruz Really Derail NASA Climate Science Research?

Can Ted Cruz Really Derail NASA Climate Science Research?

Much is being made of Senator Ted Cruz’s ascension to chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and a few other government science and technology programs.  Cruz critics postulate Armageddon for climate science research because Cruz is a climate change skeptic.  A quick reminder about how Congress works may lend perspective in assessing how much impact his views may have.

If approved by the full committee on January 20 as expected, Cruz will chair one of six subcommittees of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – the subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness.

In the last Congress, the Science and Space Subcommittee covered NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The reordering of the words “science” and “space” is new, along with the addition of “competitiveness,” a topic that previously was part of a seventh subcommittee that has been abolished and its oversight areas redistributed. Contrary to some news reports today, it does NOT cover atmospheric sciences.  That is under the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, which will be chaired by Marco Rubio (R-FL).  NOAA is covered by Rubio’s subcommittee.

The committee and its subcommittees are part of the authorization process in Congress.   Authorizers provide oversight, set policy and recommend funding levels.  They do not provide any money to anyone.  Only appropriations committees provide money to federal departments and agencies like NASA that are part of “discretionary” spending (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Social Security and Medicare).

The Senators with the most power to decide how much money NASA (and NOAA) will get and how that money is spent are Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who are the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Both are NASA advocates and Mikulski is particularly supportive of NASA earth science programs and NOAA’s weather satellites.  Even though she is in the minority now, she still is very powerful and it is difficult to imagine a Senate appropriations bill that includes disproportionate cuts to either of those programs.  (Not that there might not be cuts – that depends on spending caps.)

Cruz, by contrast, has authority over policy and theoretically could write a NASA authorization bill that restricts what climate science research NASA could do or even abolishes NASA’s entire earth science program.  Such a bill, however, would have to get through the full committee, the Senate, the House and be signed into law by the President before becoming law.  While one should “never say never,” the chances of that happening are extremely small.

The very first step in that process could be a challenge since the full Senate Commerce Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who is also the third ranking Republican in the Senate.  His views are much more moderate than Cruz’s.  As reported by the Washington Post in November, Thune acknowledged on Fox News that he accepts that human activity contributes to climate change.

South Dakota is home to the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center that, among other things, manages data from the Landsat series of spacecraft.  While it is USGS in the Department of Interior that operates the EROS Center and the Landsat satellites already on orbit, NASA is the agency that designs, builds and launches new Landsat satellites.  Thus, he probably is more familiar with at least some aspects of NASA earth science programs and has constituent interests at stake.  Also, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an ardent NASA supporter, is the top Democrat on the committee and while he is now in the minority, he is a highly respected voice on NASA issues.

Even if such a bill nonetheless made it out of committee and all the way through Congress, it is next to impossible to imagine President Obama signing it.  While Republicans control the House and Senate, they do not have veto-proof majorities.

While the ringing of alarm bells has focused mostly on Cruz’s climate change views, others are worried that his determination to cut federal spending could cast a pall on other NASA programs, too.   That is a much greater concern, but is not really related to his subcommittee chairmanship.

Cutting federal spending across the board is where Cruz has made his stand and there is little reason to expect he will change that stance.  He is blamed (or credited) for leading the effort that shut down the government for 16 days in 2013 and keeping the Senate in session longer than even his Republican colleagues wanted last month over the final FY2015 appropriations bill (though the main issue there was immigration).

Cruz might use his subcommittee chairmanship to hold hearings lambasting the Obama Administration’s support for climate science research – as the House Science, Space and Technology Committee has been doing for several years – but he does not need a subcommittee chairmanship to be a powerful force for government spending cuts that could affect NASA.

Under current law, sequestration returns in FY2016.  For those who want to anguish over the outlook for NASA funding for climate science research or anything else, that is the real issue – will Congress repeal sequestration and, if it does, will non-defense discretionary programs like NASA fare any better under whatever replaces it.

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