House Finally Ready for 118th Congress, Government Spending Cuts Top Priority

House Finally Ready for 118th Congress, Government Spending Cuts Top Priority

In the early hours this morning, the House finally elected Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker, allowing the chamber to get down to business. Until now, members could not be sworn in and the House could not adopt rules to organize for the 118th Congress. The change from Democratic to Republican control marks a return to divided government, with Democrats retaining the Senate and White House. Cutting non-defense government spending is a top priority for the House Republican majority, which could have a significant impact on NASA’s aspirations, as would gridlock.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) won election as Speaker of the House on January 7, 2023 on the 15th ballot.

The House opened the 118th Congress on January 3 with Republicans in control by a slim margin: 222-212. One Democratic vacancy will be filled by a special election on February 21 in the heavily Democratic district likely yielding a 222-213 split.

Electing a Speaker is the first order of business in a new Congress. It is the Speaker who swears in the members of the House, so everybody who won a seat in November remains a member-elect until then. After they are sworn in, they adopt the rules for organizing the House and conducting business.

Usually that happens in the first hours, but this year it took until approximately 12:40 am ET this morning, January 7. Considering the hour, they decided to wait until Monday to vote on the rules package, but McCarthy did adminster the oath of office to everyone.

McCarthy needed a majority of votes cast for a person by name to win. With the 212 Democrats voting for their candidate, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), he needed 218 of the 222 Republican votes, or to get enough Republicans to vote “present” or not vote at all to lower the threshold. As many as 20 voted against him time and again, but he negotiated agreements with many of them by yesterday.

Two members expected to vote for him had had to return to their homes on Thursday so final voting was postponed until 10:00 pm last night to give them time to return to Washington. McCarthy appeared confident as that vote began, but he and his supporters were clearly surprised when he fell one short after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) voted “present” instead of for McCarthy. As seen live on C-SPAN, frustrations boiled over to the point that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “lunged” at Gaetz and had to be restrained.

On the next vote, the rest of the bloc of McCarthy’s six most determined opponents relented and also voted “present.” That lowered the total number of people voting for a person by name to 428 and the number needed for a majority to 216 instead of 218. McCarthy got exactly 216 votes.

One concession McCarthy reportedly made to win over some of his detractors was that any single Republican can make a motion to remove him as Speaker at any time, so the House could end up back in these straits again before the 118th Congress ends.

The struggle over the Speakership and flaring intra-party tempers are important from a space policy perspective because of what it foreshadows for passing legislation in these next two years. Getting any legislation passed is a challenge, but all the more so when the Speaker and his supporters are at such odds with a group within their own party that it takes 15 votes to get elected. This was the first time since 1923 that it took more than one. It took nine that year. The record was 133 ballots in 1855-1856.

That’s on top of the sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats on many issues, especially government spending. Republicans want to increase defense spending while cutting non-defense spending (e.g. NASA and NOAA) to reduce the debt. Democrats insist that non-defense spending be funded commensurately with defense.

Washington Examiner reporter Susan Ferrechio reports that in order to win over detractors, he vowed the House will pass a budget resolution capping discretionary spending at “FY2022 levels or lower,” reject negotiations with the Senate unless they comply with House direction, and refuse to increase the debt limit unless the growth of spending is reduced or capped.

NASA’s budget could drop from the $25.4 billion it just got for FY2023 to $24.0 billion if they held to FY2022 levels on an agency-by-agency basis.

Another concession McCarthy reportedly made was that each of the 12 appropriations bills must be passed individually instead of combined into a single omnibus bill, open to amendment on the floor, and on time. That sounds reasonable and Members from both parties on both sides of Capitol Hill routinely decry the use of Continuing Resolutions and omnibus bills, but they are commonplace because there’s no other way to reach agreement.

As recently as three weeks ago House Republican appropriators refused to negotiate on the FY2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act. It was able to clear Congress because Senate Republicans did agree to work with Democrats and nine House Republicans joined 216 Democrats voting for it.

The Senate remains under Democratic control with 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans nominally. Officially there are 49 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 3 Independents (Sinema of AZ, Sanders of VT, King of ME) who often vote and/or caucus with Democrats and hold committee and leadership positions with Democrats, so the split is usually shown as 51-49. It was 50-50 last year. The Senate’s opening day on January 3 was unremarkable. They recessed until January 23.

By law, President Biden is due to submit his FY2024 budget request on February 6, the first Monday in February. It’ll be a bumpy road for sure.

Considering the gulf between Republican and Democratic funding priorities, if the House majority holds firm in rejecting CRs and omnibus bills, gridlock leading to government shutdowns looms large.

Shutdowns are particularly problematic for research and development agencies like NASA and DOD, adding costs as programs have to close down and then restart with resulting schedule delays. All that on top of existing COVID-related supply chain disruptions and inflation.

Funding may not be the only space topic in the 118th Congress, of course. A lot of space-related bills were introduced during the 117th Congress, though few received action. Any bill that doesn’t pass by the end of a Congress dies and the process has to start over again.

Among the possibilities for reintroduction this year are legislation on orbital debris and space situational awareness. The Senate passed the ORBITS Act (S. 4814) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced the Space Safety and Situational Awareness bill (H.R. 9534) in the closing days. Also in December, incoming House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) released a draft bill to establish NOAA in law (it was established by Executive Order in 1970) and move the Office of Space Commerce out of NOAA to a higher level in the Department of Commerce.

Congress might also weigh in on regulation of commercial human spaceflight since the law that prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations expires on September 30, 2023. McCarthy said in his remarks this morning that “we pledge to cut regulatory burden.” Allowing the law to expire could increase regulations, so they might try to extend the “moratorium” again.

Legislation also might be introduced, or hearings held, if the Administration puts forward a policy on what agency should be responsible for mission authorization, an issue currently under consideration at the National Space Council.

McCarthy’s district includes Mojave Air & Space Port, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and other defense and aerospace interests in the Edwards Air Force Base area, so he does have some interest in space and aeronautics, but these issues rarely rise to the top of the legislative agenda. Time will tell what makes it this year.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.