Final FY2020 Appropriations Keep Office of Space Commerce in Limbo

Final FY2020 Appropriations Keep Office of Space Commerce in Limbo

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross continues to be stymied in his efforts to elevate the Office of Space Commerce to his level at the Department and expand its responsibilities.  The final version of the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, released today, follows the Senate’s lead in requiring a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on the advisability of that move.  The Senate action came after Ross declined to make any witnesses available to explain why it is needed. [UPDATE:  The bill passed the House on December 17 and the Senate on December 19.]

The Trump Administration assigned significant new responsibilities to the Department of Commerce (DOC) for regulating commercial space activities in Space Policy Directive-2 and Space Policy Directive-3.  The goal is to make DOC a “‘one-stop shop” for commercial space companies and become the interface with civil and commercial satellite operators for Space Situational Awareness (SSA), a task currently assigned to the Air Force, eventually evolving into Space Traffic Management (STM).

Ross enthusiastically embraced the expanded role for DOC, which until recently has been in charge only of regulating commercial remote sensing satellites through the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office within NOAA.  NOAA also has an Office of  Space Commerce (OSC), though it has been underutilized for many years.

Kevin O’Connell. Credit: NOAA

Ross hired Kevin O’Connell to revitalize OSC and lead the effort to merge OSC and CRSRA and use them as a nucleus for a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to the Secretary.  Creation of a bureau requires authorization legislation, which has hit its own roadblocks, but a first step could be achieved by merging the appropriations accounts for CRSRA and OSC and moving them into the Departmental Management (DM) account.

Ross also asked for a funding increase.  CRSRA and OSC each get $1.8 million.  Ross wanted to merge them and add another $6.4 million for a total of $10 million in FY2020.

It will not happen this year, however.  First the House Appropriations Committee said no, without explanation.  Then Senate appropriators said no, but they made the source of their dissatisfaction crystal clear.  Twice they invited DOC officials to testify about the proposal and both declined.  Therefore they directed that NAPA conduct an independent review of the proposal and allocated $1.1 million for a one-year study.  They kept CRSRA and OSC at their respective $1.8 million funding levels and provided none of the additional $6.4 million.

That meant $1.1 million of OSC’s $1.8 million would be for the NAPA study.  In the final version of the bill released today, the appropriators softened that a bit by encouraging (but not directing) that the DM account split the cost of the study with OSC, and increased OSC’s budget by $500,000 for its share.  It also shortened the length of time NAPA has to do the study to 6 months.

Thus the total for OSC in FY2020 will be $2.3 million.  The accounts for CRSRA and OSC remain separate, so everything will remain as it is for another year at least.

That is assuming the House and Senate pass this bill and the President signs it into law.  Congressional appropriators and leadership appear optimistic that the White House agrees with not just this bill, but the other 11, and FY2020 appropriations will be finalized by the end of this week.  The 12 regular appropriations bills are grouped into two “minibuses.”  CJS is part of the “national security” minibus, H.R. 1158, along with Defense, Financial Services, and Homeland Security.  The other eight are combined into H.R. 1865, the “domestic priorities and international assistance” minibus.

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