Intense Partisanship Over NASA Resurfaces on House Committee

Intense Partisanship Over NASA Resurfaces on House Committee

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a new NASA authorization bill today amid partisan discord reminiscent of a markup of a 2013 NASA authorization bill that never made it to the floor of the House for a vote.  Four Democratic amendments were rejected on party-line votes, and the original bill was approved on a party-line vote. The committee’s top Democrat vowed that the bill would never become law.

The rancorous markup of H.R. 2039, the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017, was in sharp contrast to recent committee and subcommittee hearings on space topics as well as action on two prior NASA authorization bills for 2014 and 2015.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats differ with the Obama Administration on a number of NASA issues, especially the future of the human spaceflight program.  The top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), as recently as Tuesday talked about the “tremendous” working relationship she had with subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS).   She expressed hope that they could find a solution to the drastic funding cuts to NASA’s earth science program included in H.R. 2039 before the markup, but that did not happen.

At the markup today, she wondered aloud as to the purpose of having a space subcommittee when it was never consulted about the bill, never held a hearing on the bill, and for at least the past several years had never held a hearing on NASA’s earth science program despite it now being targeted for cuts.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, was even blunter.  Noting that Democrats were not consulted about the bill and did not even know about it until Republicans announced the markup last Friday, she lambasted what she called the Republican “ideological agenda” and lamented that Republicans were “throwing out” all the bipartisan work that characterized the 2014 and 2015 bills by cutting NASA’s earth science and aeronautics budgets.  Those cuts “have nothing to do with making America safer or stronger… They are simply the expression of the Majority’s stick-your-head-in-the-sand ideology.”

Committee Republicans led by chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) defeated Democratic attempts to pass a substitute bill offered by Johnson and three other targeted amendments to increase funding for earth science (Edwards), space technology (Rep. Ami Bera, D-CA), and aeronautics (Rep. Don Beyer, D-VA).   They would have added money to the total NASA budget recommended in the bill.  Republicans insisted that it would add to the nation’s debt and the committee had to set priorities.

Republicans argue publicly that NASA’s unique role is space exploration and earth science research should be conducted by other agencies.  Many also are climate change skeptics who are not enthusiastic about spending money on climate research.  They took money from earth science, as well as from space technology, and reallocated it to the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, associated ground systems, planetary exploration, and astrophysics.

Both sides introduced letters they received from stakeholders in the aeronautics and space communities either opposing or endorsing the bill as introduced (they are posted, along with the amendments and opening statements, on the respective Republican and Democratic committee websites).

In the end, the bill was approved as introduced.  A fact sheet summarizing the bill contains a table comparing its funding provisions to those appropriated for FY2015 and requested by President Obama for FY2016.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement after the markup saying that the bill “guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate….NASA leads the world in the exploration and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.”  He added that the bill also underfunds space technology that the “nation needs to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

Johnson, the full committee’s top Democrat, vowed that the bill would never become law and could erode support for NASA overall.  “There are those in this country, and in this Congress, who don’t think NASA should be a priority.  NASA has survived and thrived over the years only because of the strong bipartisan backing of those who understand the importance of NASA to our national wellbeing.  The bill before us will never become law.  But the Majority’s willingness to walk away from bipartisanship in order to appease their own most ideologically driven Members, risks eroding support for NASA in general.  This, I fear, will be one of the most unfortunate consequences of the Majority’s actions.”

Committee Republicans were unswayed.  The bill was approved 19-15 along party lines.

Chairman Smith issued a statement asserting that the bill “restores balance to NASA’s budget and supports its role as the only government agency responsible for space exploration.”  The bill is sponsored by Palazzo, Smith and 15 other Republicans, including the chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).  (Authorization bills recommend funding, but do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money.  For more on the difference between authorizations and appropriations, see our “What’s a Markup” fact sheet.

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