House Defeats Bill Over Concerns About FCC Space Safety and Debris Authority

House Defeats Bill Over Concerns About FCC Space Safety and Debris Authority

The House defeated legislation today that critics said would have given the Federal Communications Commission “unprecedented authority” over space safety and space debris in a jurisdictional dispute between two House committees. The underlying bill from the House Energy and Commerce Committee focused on streamlining the FCC’s satellite spectrum licensing process, but the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee persuasively argued the space safety and debris provision would harm the commercial space industry.

The Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining (SAT Streamlining) Act, H.R. 1338, was introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Chair and Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee respectively. The committee approved the bill on March 24 and it was brought up on the House floor today on the suspension calendar.

Relatively non-controversial bills that are expected to be able to win a two-thirds vote are allowed to bypass the House Rules Committee and go directly to the floor — the rules are “suspended” and the bill is placed on the suspension calendar. That’s a useful shortcut, but it means the bill cannot pass with a simple majority like other legislation. It needs two-thirds of those voting to approve.

It’s rare, but not unprecedented, for a bill on the suspension calendar to fail. Today was one of those instances.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees the FCC and for the first time in more than a decade has become quite active in satellite spectrum matters.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, speaks on the House floor about her Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, H.R. 1338. July 25, 2023. Screengrab.

Every satellite needs to communicate back to Earth using frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. The FCC licenses spectrum to non-government users while the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) does it for the government.

Although the FCC’s formal purview is assigning frequencies, it is expanding its space-related activities especially in areas where no other government agency has been given regulatory responsibilities. That includes orbital debris. Although NASA leads the development of orbital debris mitigation standards and the U.S. Space Force tracks space objects, they are not regulatory agencies. NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce is developing a system to share space situational awareness data with civil and commercial satellite operators, but it does not have authority to direct those operators to take action.

That leaves a regulatory vacuum that the FCC has been filling for several years. Most recently it set a requirement that commercial satellite companies deorbit their satellites within five years of the end of their operational lifetimes.

Along those lines, H.R. 1338 directs the FCC to issue rules to establish “specific, measurable, and technology-neutral performance objectives for space safety and orbital debris.”

Commercial space activities, however, are under the jurisdiction of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, not Energy and Commerce. House SS&T is beginning work on commercial space legislation and just fought another jurisdictional battle with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the FAA Reauthorization bill.

Today, the bipartisan leadership of the committee and its space subcommittee issued a “Dear Colleague” letter urging members to vote against H.R. 1338. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA),  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), and Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-IL) said the bill included broad language giving the FCC unprecedented authority that would have “significant consequences for the U.S. commercial space industry and threaten U.S. leadership in novel space activities.”

A House SS&T committee source told before the floor debate that “ongoing discussions” with their House E&C committee counterparts “unfortunately haven’t been productive.”

During the floor debate, McMorris Rodgers and Pallone rejected the assertion that the bill provides FCC with any new authorities in this area or infringes on the House SS&T committee’s jurisdiction.

“Our goal today is to ensure that the FCC does not become a space traffic cop and try to manage space traffic management functions or provide space situational awareness information. We added rules of construction to clarify the FCC does not have authority to be the space traffic cop and affirm that nothing in H.R. 1338 would expand the existing authority of the FCC currently as they have regarding orbital debris and space safety.” — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA)

Despite Science’s claims [the bill] does not infringe on the Science Committee’s jurisdiction or grant the FCC new authority with respect to space safety and orbital debris. … To the extent this bill references space safety and orbital debris it is in the context of ensuring that the FCC acts within the bounds of the rules adopted by the U.S. Government for orbital debris mitigation. — Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ)

Each side had 20 minutes for debate. The Republican side was managed by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who chairs the House E&C Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee. Pallone was floor manager for the Democrats.

None of the four members who signed the House SS&T letter spoke during floor debate.  Babin and Lucas were present, but Latta did not yield them time, giving the floor to members who supported the bill. The House SS&T committee posted the statements Babin and Lucas were prepared to make.

Pallone gave Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) three minutes to speak in opposition. Beyer chaired the House SS&T space subcommittee in the last Congress, but is not currently a member of the committee because of other assignments. He reiterated the points in the Dear Colleague letter and said he is working on space situational awareness legislation himself already.

At the end of the debate, Lucas demanded a recorded vote, which was taken later in the day. The bill failed 250-163-1, short of the two-thirds majority needed to win. Republicans voted 163 in favor, 50 against, and one “present.” Democrats voted 87 in favor and 113 against.

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