House Committee Clears Commercial Space Bill on Partisan, But Friendly, Vote

House Committee Clears Commercial Space Bill on Partisan, But Friendly, Vote

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved the Commercial Space Act today on a strictly party-line basis, but the top Republican and top Democrat on the committee agreed to work together to find common ground before the bill proceeds to a vote by the full House. Today’s action completed a markup that was sidetracked two weeks ago when the White House suddenly produced its own proposed “mission authorization” language just before the markup began.

Space subcommittee chair Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and full committee chair Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced the Commercial Space Act (H.R. 6131) on November 2 and later set November 15 at 9:30 am ET for markup. At 9:00 am that day, the White House National Space Council publicly released its long-awaited proposal on what agency or agencies should regulate novel space activities, one of the topics addressed in the bill. The Space Council is part of the Executive Office of the President and is chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, at the final markup of the Commercial Space Act, November 29, 2023. Screengrab.

Apparently some committee members and staff saw the text in advance because Lucas and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Zoe Lofren (D-CA), were ready to point out some of the sharp differences between the Space Council’s submission and the Babin-Lucas bill.

Lucas said the White House “proposals just go in the wrong direction and hurt rather than support America’s space industry.”

A major impetus for crafting new commercial space legislation is to ensure the United States abides by its obligations under Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that require governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-government entities, like companies.

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NOAA), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulate some activities already: commercial space launches and reentries (FAA), commercial remote sensing (NOAA), and assignment of radio frequencies and (to some extent) creation of space debris (FCC).

But commercial space activities are blossoming right now with a seemingly endless list of proposals for everything from satellite servicing to space manufacturing to fuel depots and much more. The question is who should regulate those “novel” activities and to what extent.

For Lucas, the Space Council’s proposal is a “needless expansion of government authority.”  Instead of consolidating new regulatory authority at the Department of Commerce as proposed in H.R. 6131, the White House would assign some activities there and others to the FAA. “Whereas our bill creates a one-stop shop to the extent possible, under this proposal, organizations would be forced to get multiple licenses from multiple cabinet-level departments.” Along with other objectionable provisions, he concluded that “instead of streamlining already convoluted  processes, the Space Council is adding to bureaucracy and stifling innovation.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, at the final markup of the Commercial Space Act, November 29, 2023.

For her part, Lofgren said she was “frustrated that we had to wait so long” for the White House’s proposal, but its “imminent” release had been known for “a couple of weeks” so she found the timing of the markup problematic. She expressed reservations about some of the provisions in H.R. 6131 and noted the bill “would likely result in the largest expansion of space regulatory policy since we first began legislating on this topic in the 1980s,” underscoring the need to “take our time to work with the National Space Council and our external stakeholders to get it right.”

After declaring opposition to the bill, Lofgren added that she wanted to thank Lucas and his staff for working with her side of the aisle “in a transparent and honest fashion. It really is a model for the rest of Congress, and even on a day when I will be politely disagreeing with the Chairman, I wanted to thank him for his efforts.”

The committee proceeded to consider and vote on amendments that day, but deferred a final vote on the bill until after the Thanksgiving break.

That’s what took place today — a final vote on H.R. 6131 and an unrelated bill, the National Quantum Initiative Reauthorization they also were considering on November 15. The Quantum bill passed with no opposition.

As for H.R. 6131, it was a 21-17 party-line vote, with one member not voting.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee vote on Commercial Space Act, H.R. 6131, November 29, 2023. Screengrab.

However, Lofgren emphasized her intent to work with Lucas “in a very collegial way” before the bill proceeds further “so all of us can be confident that this is the consensus of where we should move.”

Lucas replied “noted, and very much appreciated.”

For years Republicans and Democrats on the committee have prided themselves on working in a bipartisan manner on many issues, including space activities, as much as possible.

As Lofgren said, they need to work not only with the Space Council, but stakeholders who will be affected by any new law. One of those stakeholders, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), has already weighed in on the side of H.R. 6131.

In a November 27 letter to the Chairs and Ranking Members of House SS&T and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, President Karina Drees said CSF “steadfastly supports” making the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce “the singular federal agency providing mission authorization for in-space activities not currently regulated elsewhere.” She argued that the Space Council’s proposal “fails to consider the points that CSF and many other stakeholders raised” during a series of listening sessions in 2022 and “notably, no participant in the listening sessions supported” assigning mission authorization responsibilities to DOT.

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