DeFazio Succeeds in Killing Space Frontier Act

DeFazio Succeeds in Killing Space Frontier Act

The surprise defeat of the Space Frontier Act in the House yesterday can be traced to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the likely incoming chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee. The bill, S. 3277, was brought before the House under a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority to pass. It did not achieve that threshold after DeFazio circulated a memo warning that it could negatively impact the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS).

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon)

DeFazio is currently the Ranking Member of the House T&I committee.  The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee has recommended that he chair the committee when Democrats take control of the House on January 3.

The bill, S. 3277, was defeated 239-137, with 57 not voting.

Bills brought up under suspension of the rules require a two-thirds aye vote and it failed to get that.  Suspension of the rules is a streamlined process that avoids the need to get a rule from the House Rules Committee, but requires aye votes from two-thirds of those present and voting to pass instead of a simple majority.  Ordinarily bills are considered under suspension only if House leadership is confident they will be able to get the required votes. It is rare, though obviously not impossible, for a bill to fail on the suspension calendar.

Of the no votes, 130 were Democratic and 7 were Republican.  The no votes can be traced at least in part to DeFazio’s memo. obtained a copy of the memo and it is reproduced here.


Integrating commercial space launches into the NAS is a genuine issue that is being addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and Air Traffic Organization (ATO) are both working on it.

The House T&I Committee has broad jurisdiction over DOT and FAA, but AST is overseen by the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, which crafted the Commercial Space Launch Act in the 1980s and subsequent amendments to it.  House SS&T Committee has oversight of “commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation,” including FAA/AST, although the T&I Aviation Subcommittee also claims jurisdiction over “commercial space transportation and tourism.”

Some view DeFazio’s effort to derail the bill as an indication that he plans to try to assert more authority over commercial space launch issues in the new Congress.  The T&I committee has held few hearings on these issues over the years, but its Aviation Subcommittee did have one this summer addressing the specific topic of commercial space launches and the NAS.

However, legislation on commercial space launch issues like the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, H.R. 2809, was not jointly referred to both committees, illustrating that the House Parliamentarian considered House SS&T to be the committee of jurisdiction.

Whatever DeFazio’s effort means in terms of jurisdictional fights in the new Congress, he was successful in killing the Space Frontier Act.  It passed the Senate on Thursday, but with the 115th Congress drawing to a close, time likely has run out for further negotiations.  Support for the bill by the Republican and Democratic leadership of the House SS&T Committee was tepid yesterday, but Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did call for its passage.  Smith is retiring.  Johnson is expected to chair the committee next year.

Whether commercial space issues will be a top priority for her remains to be seen.  In her floor statement yesterday, she said one reason she was supporting the bill despite disappointment in the process that brought it to the floor was her desire to see the commercial space industry “flourish.”  During committee consideration of H.R. 2809, she unsuccessfully fought to have responsibility for regulating non-traditional space activities assigned to DOT rather than the Department of Commerce.  However, space activities are not listed at all in her November statement of priorities if she becomes committee chair.

The fate of the effort in the Senate next year also is unclear.  One of the bill’s strongest supporters in the Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), lost his bid for reelection and will not be returning.  However, the bill’s other two sponsors, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ed Markey (D-MA) will be back.  There is broad agreement on the need to reform and update regulations governing commercial remote sensing satellites and commercial space launches and other issues tackled in the legislation even if many of the details remain controversial.


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