House Votes Down Space Frontier Act

House Votes Down Space Frontier Act

The House voted down the Space Frontier Act today, a day after it passed the Senate. The bill was brought up under a special procedure called suspension of the rules that requires a two-thirds vote to pass and it did not achieve that threshold.  With the 115th Congress winding down, it is unlikely another opportunity will arise to consider the legislation, meaning work will have to being anew next year.  The Chair and Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee offered only grudging support during floor debate, but both did call for it to pass.

The vote was 239-137, with 57 not voting.

Of the 239 aye votes, 194 were Republican and 45 were Democratic.  Of the no votes, 7 were Republican and 130 were Democratic.

Attempts to contact various sources on Capitol Hill late on a Friday afternoon before the holidays met with mixed success, but initial indications are that one factor that helped lead to the bill’s defeat does not concern its substance.  Instead, it is a jurisdictional issue.

Although the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has jurisdiction over commercial space transportation issues, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee’s interest in the topic has been growing in recent years.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) speaking on the House floor, April 24, 2018. Screengrab.

The bill, S. 3277, was sent to the House yesterday after it passed the Senate and went directly to the floor. One rumor is that a key Democrat on the T&I committee objected because there was no opportunity for that committee to review its commercial space transportation provisions.  This individual reportedly convinced other Democrats to vote against it as a marker that in the next Congress, when Democrats will be in control of the House, the T&I committee wants to play a more prominent role in these issues.

Another factor may have been that the bill received only lukewarm support from the Chair and Ranking Member of the House SS&T Committee during floor debate, although in the end both said they supported it.

House SS&T Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) called it a “missed opportunity” that lacks the “bold reforms” in the House-passed bill, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (H.R. 2809).  His “biggest disappointment” is that the bill “does not establish a self-certification regime for private space missions,” although he listed a number of other complaints as well.  Still, the bill “marginally” improves commercial remote sensing regulation, creates a Bureau of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce, and authorizes funding for a low Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization program.  He concluded that much work remains to be done in the next Congress and with “this hope and expectation, I ask for support of this bill.”  Smith is retiring, so will not be able to pursue that work himself, however.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who is expected to become chair of the committee in the 116th Congress, expressed “reluctant support.” “I say reluctant because the process that brought us to this point is extremely disappointing.  Many of the provisions have not been seriously vetted by the Science Committee. I doubt very much whether they were at all vetted by anyone in the Senate. … This is no way to legislate.”  Still, she said she would support the bill because she wants commercial space to “flourish.” She also cited the extension of government funding for the International Space Station to 2030 as a positive.   “I support this bill in spite of the awful process that got us here.”

The bill was brought to the floor under suspension of the rules, a streamlined process that avoids the need to get a rule from the House Rules Committee, but requires a two-thirds vote to pass instead of a simple majority.  Ordinarily bills are considered under suspension only if House leadership is confident they will be able to get past the two-thirds threshold.  It is rare, though obviously not impossible, for a bill to fail on the suspension calendar.

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.