Congress Returns to Work With a Full Plate of Space Policy Issues for 2014

Congress Returns to Work With a Full Plate of Space Policy Issues for 2014

Many pundits label last year as the “do nothing Congress.”   At the very end, the House and Senate did at least reach agreement on a two-year budget resolution and the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but a lot did not get done.  Here is a quick synopsis of the civil, commercial and national security space issues facing Congress in the second session of the 113th Congress as it returns to work this week.  The Senate meets tomorrow (Monday), and the House on Tuesday.

Third Party Liability for Commercial Launch Services.  Perhaps the first space-related issue they will tackle is extending third party liability indemnification for commercial launch services providers.  The House and Senate committees with jurisdiction — the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — agree that the FAA’s authority to indemnify commercial launch services companies for certain amounts of liability for third party claims in case of a launch failure should be extended again.  They disagree on the length of time for the extension.  Democrats on the House SS&T Committee want to limit the extension to one year so additional hearings can be held on the need for indemnification.   The Senate committee and House SS&T Republicans want three years.  Industry would prefer a longer extension, preferably making the authority permanent.

The House passed a one year extension (H.R. 3547) on December 2.  The Senate passed the House bill on December 12, but with an amendment extending it for three years.  That meant the bill had to go back to the House.  By then, however, the House had completed its legislative business for the year and the clock ran out.  The indemnification authority expired on December 31.  This is an important matter for U.S. launch services providers, however, and it would not be surprising to see an extension passed early this year as a stand-alone bill or as part of the anticipated Omnibus Appropriations Act.

FY2014 Appropriations.  Speaking of an Omnibus Appropriations Act, the mood in Washington is relatively upbeat that a bill to fund the government for the rest of FY2014 can pass before the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on January 15.   The Bipartisan Budget Act (H. J. Res. 59) that cleared Congress in December set the limits of how much money Congress can appropriate for FY2014, but the actual task of appropriating those funds is the province of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.  They have been working diligently over the holidays crafting the 12 regular appropriations bills within the limits set by the budget act. 

Three of those 12 bills are of particular interest from a space policy standpoint: Defense (H.R.. 2387/S. 1429); Commerce-Justice-Science, which includes NASA and NOAA (H.R. 2787/S. 1329); and Transportation-HUD, which includes the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (H.R. 2610/S. 1243).  The expectation is that all 12 bills will be bundled together into a single Omnibus Appropriations bill for consideration by the House and Senate.

The total amount for defense and non-defense discretionary spending in FY2014 was set at $1.012 trillion, a figure half way between what the House and Senate each had earlier approved. That does not necessarily mean that the amount for any particular agency like DOD, NASA or NOAA will be half way between what the House and Senate Appropriations Committee separately approved, however.  (For NASA, the House Appropriations Committee approved $16.6 billion; the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $18.0 billion.) Also, the budget act did not replace the sequester, but did provide $63 billion in relief from the effects of the sequester split equally between defense and non-defense spending over two years.  All in all, the most dire predictions may be avoided and the budget outlook is brighter for federal departments and agencies than it was just a few weeks ago, but that hardly means a return to business-as-usual.  Budgets will continue to be constrained across the board and Tea Party Republicans appear determined to continue fighting for deeper cuts.

NASA Authorization.  DOD may have gotten its authorization bill (H.R. 3304) at the eleventh hour, but not NASA.   NASA’s most recent authorization act became law in 2010 and covered the years FY2011-2013.   The policy provisions remain law indefinitely, but the funding authorizations have expired.  The House SS&T committee and the Senate Commerce committee each worked on separate versions of a new NASA authorization bill last year, but they are quite different from each other and neither was actually reported from committee.  Each committee marked up its bill and they were “ordered reported,” but they still have not actually been reported.  (Typically, though not always, a bill is reported from committee before going to the floor of the House or Senate for consideration.)

The two major differences are funding levels and the status of the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The House bill (H.R. 2687) authorizes $16.9 billion, while the Senate bill (S. 1317) authorizes $18.1 billion.   The House bill prohibits spending any funds on ARM; the Senate bill is silent on ARM.  Both bills cleared their committees on party line votes, which is unusual for NASA, traditionally a bipartisan topic.

Intelligence Authorization.   Like NASA, the FY2014 authorization bill for the Intelligence Community did not clear Congress.   It was reported from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees (H.R. 3381/S. 1681) in November, but no further action was taken.  The Senate bill “encourages” the relevant government decision-makers to allow commercial satellite imagery providers to sell imagery with better resolution than what is allowed today (0.25 meter instead of 0.5 meter).  A statement in the unclassified report accompanying the House version of the bill (H. Rept. 113-277) says that it “continues to remove barriers to competition in space” and “advances technologies to enhance U.S. satellite capabilities,” but no further details are provided.

Termination Liability for Certain NASA Programs.   Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) introduced one part of the House committee’s NASA authorization bill as a separate bill in the hope of moving at least that part to the floor for a vote.   Referred to as the “termination liability” bill (H.R. 3625), one portion would change how NASA manages funding for termination liability for contracts for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, International Space Station (ISS), and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Perhaps more significantly, however, it would require congressional approval before any of those programs could be terminated, which some view as an encroachment on presidential prerogatives.  Congress has the power of the purse under the Constitution and strictly speaking can always countermand a presidential decision to either initiate or terminate a program that requires funding, but this bill explicitly requires congressional approval to terminater these particular programs.  The bill passed the House SS&T committee on a bipartisan vote in December after the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), convinced committee Republicans to add JWST to the list of protected programs.  Like the NASA authorization bill, H.R. 3625 was ordered reported, but not formally reported.  There is no Senate counterpart at this time.

Weather Forecasting Improvement Act.   The House SS&T Committee approved the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act (H.R. 2413) in December, but, like the others, has not been formally reported.   The bill does not focus on weather satellites, but does clarify that existing law does not prevent the government from buying commercial weather data or placing weather satellite sensors on co-hosted government or private sector satellites.   There is no Senate counterpart to this bill yet, either.

Other Legislation.   A number of other space-related bills were introduced last year, but whether they will see any action this year is somewhere between unlikely and possible.   They include a bill to study an alternative to RD-180 rocket engines (S. 1679), the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act (H.R 3038), and a bill to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong (H.R. 667 passed the House, but there has been no action on its Senate counterpart, S. 1636). 

Nominations.  The Senate had a major show-down over nominations this year.   Democrats weary of Republicans preventing nominations from coming to the floor under existing Senate rules changed the rules so that only 51 votes instead of 60 votes are needed to bring a nomination to a vote.   Republicans are furious and responded by slowing action on the Senate floor during the chamber’s last days in 2013.   How it will affect Senate business in 2014 remains to be seen.

In the meantime, although Deborah Lee James was finally confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force on December 13, other important space-related nominations did not reach the floor during the first session.  Consequently they must be resubmitted by the President under Senate Rule XXXI paragraph 6.   They include:

  • Kathy Sullivan to be Administrator of NOAA (she is currently acting in that role)
  • Beth Robinson, currently NASA’s Chief Financial Officer, to be Under Secretary of Energy
  • Dave Radzanowski to replace Robinson
  • France Cordova to be Director of the National Science Foundation
  • Jo Emily Handelsman to be Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
  • Robert Simon to be Associate Director for Environment and Energy at OSTP

All of these nominations were returned to the President on January 3, 2014 (the end of the first session).



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