House Appropriators Continue to Reject Elevating NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce to Department Level — UPDATE

House Appropriators Continue to Reject Elevating NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce to Department Level — UPDATE

House appropriators are again rejecting the Trump Administration’s proposal to elevate the Office of Space Commerce at NOAA to the Secretary of Commerce’s level where it would be the nucleus for a new Bureau of Space Commerce. The Administration has not been successful in convincing Congress of the merits of the idea. Last year, Senate appropriators demanded an independent report on the pro and cons that has not been publicly released yet. UPDATE: The committee approved the bill on July 14, 2020.

President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-2 and Space Policy Directive-3 envision a greatly expanded role for the Department of Commerce in regulating commercial space activities. It would also become the interface with the civil and commercial sectors on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM), relieving DOD of that role.

Today, NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) regulates commercial remote sensing satellites and the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) is focused on creating an Open Architecture Data Repository of space data as the first step in what it hopes will be its SSA/STM role in the future.

The Administration’s goal is to merge them, move them up to the Secretary’s office, assign them additional authorities to regulate all commercial space activities not already under the authority of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (launch and reentry) or the Federal Communications Commission (spectrum assignments), and create a Bureau of Space Commerce on a more equal level with other parts of the Department.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is strongly supportive.

It would be a substantial portfolio since no government entity currently oversees commercial space activities like satellite servicing, in-space refueling, or activities on the Moon or other celestial bodies.

Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, governments must authorize and continually supervise activities of their non-government entities. With growing commercial activities in space, and associated concerns about space debris, the Obama and Trump Administrations saw the need for assigning some agency that task.  Obama wanted to expand the role of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but did not get that done before the Trump Administration took office.  Trump decided the Department of Commerce was a better fit, but has not been able to get agreement from Congress.

Last year,  Senate appropriators put language in their report on the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill directing NOAA to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) for an independent assessment of the proposal.  The House-passed version of the bill did combine OSC and CRSRA and move them into the “Departmental Management” account pursuant to a floor amendment by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), but that did not survive in the final bill.

The Trump Administration renewed its effort to move OSC and CRSRA into Departmental Management and augment its funding in the FY2021 request.

The FY2021 request is for $15 million, an increase of $10.9 million over what the two offices jointly received in FY2020 ($1.8 million for CRSRA and $2.3 million for OSC, $500,000 over its usual $1.8 million to pay half the expected costs of the NAPA study with the rest coming from Departmental Management).

Ross told the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee on March 5 that the additional funding is needed “urgently,” but subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) expressed deep reservations.

He presented similar testimony to the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee on March 10, but gave self-contradictory statements as to whether OSC already is reporting to him, meaning he was not following congressional direction to keep it within NOAA.  When asked by subcommittee chairman José Serrano (D-NY) if OSC reported directly to him, Ross said “yes, that’s correct, sir.”  When further queried as to why he was contravening explicit congressional direction, he said the opposite: “it has not been moved” and  “I interact with them, but we have not moved them.”  Serrano said that is not what NOAA was saying.  Ross said he would look into the matter.

It was just then that the coronavirus pandemic upended congressional hearings and nothing more has been said on the public record.

That committee is the first to act on the FY2021 request and whatever Ross may or may not have reported back, it wants to keep OSC where it is and looks forward to seeing the NAPA report.

The CJS bill was approved by subcommittee last week and will be considered by the full committee tomorrow.  UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on July 14, 2020 with no substantive changes.

House leadership is hopeful it can pass all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills before the August recess, a challenging goal.

The Senate has not marked up any of its bills because of a dispute between Democrats, who want to include funding for policing reform and COVID-19 relief, and Republicans, who do not.

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