House and Senate Appropriators Approve Their CJS Bills–Update

House and Senate Appropriators Approve Their CJS Bills–Update

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee approved its draft FY2013 CJS appropriations bill today.  Across Capitol Hill, the full Senate Appropriations Committee gave the nod to its version of the bill.   These are only the first steps in the lengthy congressional process to get approval for FY2013 spending, and the two bills are quite different, but they are steps nonetheless.

The Senate bill is now ready for floor action, although it is anyone’s guess as to when that will occur.  The House bill still must be marked up at full committee level.  No date for that action has been announced.

The biggest difference in the two bills with regard to space programs is that the Senate wants to take the management of weather satellite programs away from NOAA and give it to NASA.   The Senate bill transfers more than $1 billion from NOAA to NASA to pay for it.   Thus the Senate total for NASA is $19.4 billion, although the committee said that if the transfer did not take place, the total for NASA would be $41.5 million less than the President requested.    The House bill does not call for transferring NOAA’s satellite programs to NASA.  It would provide NASA $17.6 billion, $138 million less than the President’s request.

Both bills would add money for robotic Mars exploration.  The Senate bill adds $100 million; the House bill adds $150 million.  However the House bill requires that the National Research Council (NRC) certify to Congress that NASA’s new Mars plan conforms with the NRC’s decadal survey priority of missions that will ultimately return a sample of Mars to Earth.   If the NRC does not make such a certification, the $150 million will be allocated to a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa instead.  The Europa mission was the second priority for large missions in the decadal survey.   Both bills provide the requested funding for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Both bills support the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, as well as commercial crew.   Not all the details of the bills have been made public yet, but it appears that the Senate adds about $160 million for SLS and $175 million for Orion.  The Senate provided $525 millon instead of the $830 million requested for commercial crew.   The House bill would add $110 million for SLS and keep Orion funding at the requested level.  The House has not publicly indicated its funding level for commercial crew, but the Commercial Spaceflight Federation issued a press release stating that the amount is $500 million and asked Congress to provide “the highest possible funding level” as it finalizes the NASA budget.

The House did not appear to make any major changes to NOAA’s satellite programs.  Overall, it reduced the NOAA request from $5.1 billion to $5.0 billion.   It fully funded NOAA’s $916 million request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  As mentioned, the Senate would move the money allocated for NOAA’s satellite programs to NASA. 

NASA already is the acquisition agent for NOAA’s satellites, but the agencies work together on a reimburseable basis.  Congress appropriates the money to NOAA and NOAA then transfers much of it to NASA.    Senator Mikulski, who chairs the Senate CJS subcommittee, says that the government will save $117 million in FY2013 by getting rid of unnecessary management duplication by giving the money directly to NASA.  Mikulski criticized NOAA for continuing overruns on its satellite programs and insisted that NASA could do a better job.  NOAA would continue to operate the satellites once they are in orbit under the Senate CJS plan.

Others argue that whatever agency sets the requirements must be the agency responsible for obtaining the money to pay for implementing them.  Otherwise, there is no brake on the requirements-setting process and “requirements creep” sets in.  As the agency that needs the data to produce weather forecasts, NOAA presumably would remain in control of the requirements, while NASA would have to fight the budget battles to pay for satellites to meet them, a difficult position to be in.   Consequently the Senate proposal is expected to be controversial.

Overall, the House and Senate are working under very different budget assumptions for FY2013.   The Senate is using the top level assumptions that are in law as part of the Budget Control Act (BCA) enacted last year after considerable debate over raising the debt limit.    The Senate insists that those are the budget targets for this year, but the House decided to pass a different, lower set of spending numbers to guide its appropriations process.  Hanging over all of this is the threat of sequestration, also part of the BCA, wherein NASA, for example, would be subject to an eight percent across-the-board cut beginning January 1, 2013.  

Thus, even though these appropriations actions may make it appear that Congress is moving more quickly than usual in funding the government for the upcoming fiscal year, it is not expected that the FY2013 appropriations bills will be finalized before the election in November.  FY2013 begins on October 1.

 Editor’s Note:   This story is updated with the Commercial SpaceFlight Federation press release.



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