Key Congressional Races to Watch on Tuesday

Key Congressional Races to Watch on Tuesday

Election Day is tomorrow, Tuesday, November 6.  Polls have been predicting who will win control of the House and Senate, but it is impossible to know until the votes are counted — turnout is the key.  In the meantime, here are SpacePolicyOnline’s two cents worth on what to watch from a space policy perspective.  Space issues may be largely bipartisan, but there are a few exceptions and funding issues are sure to be contentious next year no matter what.

Right now, on election eve, conventional wisdom is that Democrats will take control of the House and Republicans will keep control of the Senate, perhaps adding a couple of seats to their majority.  While that is far from a foregone conclusion, it is a starting point for considering the possible shape of the next Congress for space policy issues.

In addition to overall control of Congress, the fate of three individuals who are in tight reelection races could have profound effects:  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).

Civil and Commercial Space.  The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee has jurisdiction over authorizing and setting policy for NASA, NOAA satellite programs, and commercial space regulation.  If Democrats take control of the House, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is likely to become the new chair.  She is currently the Ranking Member (top Democrat).  She has been on the committee for many years and is a strong supporter of space activities.  One of the few partisan divides on the committee regarding NASA, however, is over Earth science funding.  Johnson is a big supporter while Republicans generally are not.  Another divide, not entirely on party lines, is over commercial space regulation.  Johnson led an effort to try to put the FAA in charge of regulating non-traditional space activities and civil space situational awareness rather than the Department of Commerce as proposed by the Trump Administration and championed by Republicans on the committee. Her efforts failed at the committee level, but neither bill has been finalized.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida)

The Senate has a bill that addresses some of those issues and is more in line with Johnson than the House SS&T Republicans.  It is the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that oversees most of those issues.  Sen. Bill Nelson, the Ranking Member, is in a very close race.  If Nelson loses, his absence on space policy issues will be keenly felt.  When he was a member of the House, he flew on the space shuttle (in January 1986) and his views on space activities have special stature in the Senate.  He is an unabashed NASA fan, particularly of human spaceflight, and has a track record of working across the aisle on many space issues.

He did that in 2010 when he and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  Today he is working with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, to keep the International Space Station (ISS) in operation for as long as possible.  Both reject the Trump Administration’s proposal to end direct federal support for ISS in 2025.  They both also are ardent advocates of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit and do not want the Trump Administration to forget that Mars is still the goal, not just the Moon.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Cruz is in his own tough reelection race.  If he loses and Republicans keep control of the Senate, it is not clear who would replace him as subcommittee chair.  Cruz is a commercial space champion, too. He and Nelson have a bill that, as noted, is more aligned with Democratic views on the House SS&T committee, with the FAA rather than the Department of Commerce in charge of non-traditional space activities.

If Cruz and Nelson lose tomorrow, the momentum for any commercial space legislation and to save the ISS could weaken.  Their successors in the Senate likely would continue to support space activities since both states have a lot of government and private sector space jobs at stake, but they would not have the seniority to take the same type of leadership roles.

Rep, John Culberson (R-Texas)

Those committees recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide money.  The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee is chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).  Like Nelson and Cruz, he is in a tough race, so his first challenge is to get reelected tomorrow.  He has been having a profound influence on NASA because of his personal exuberance about the possibility of life in the oceans of Europa, a moon of Jupiter.  He has almost single-handedly forced NASA to build an orbiter and a lander for launch early in the next decade.  They are quite expensive, but he has been adding money to the NASA budget to pay for them. What will happen to those programs if he is not in Congress — even if in the minority — is an interesting question.

He is also the one who continues to include the “Wolf amendment” language prohibiting NASA from engaging in bilateral space cooperation with China unless certain conditions are met.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) is the Ranking Member of the CJS subcommittee and might take the gavel if Democrats win the House.  He has always appeared supportive of NASA (and NOAA).  If Culberson is reelected and the two of them simply switch roles, the impact may be minimal.  Appropriations chairmanships are highly coveted and who gets which appropriations subcommittee is usually a hard fought contest. There cannot be certainty today as to who would be the new CJS chair, although Serrano’s New York colleague Nita Lowey is expected to become full committee chair.

If Republicans keep control of the Senate, no major changes are expected on the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) chairs the full committee and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) chairs CJS.  Shelby is an avid supporter of NASA’s Space Launch System/Orion program.  He and Culberson have worked effectively together to add substantial sums to NASA’s budget requests for the past several years.  Whether that would continue with someone else chairing the House CJS committee remains to be seen.

Congress has not even completed FY2019  appropriations for NASA, NOAA or a number of other agencies yet.  They are funded only through December 7. The 115th Congress returns next week and will have only four weeks to finish them or pass another Continuing Resolution, perhaps bumping them into next year.  The 116th Congress already will face difficult appropriations decisions for FY2020.  Congress relaxed the 2011 Budget Control Act caps for FY2014-2015, then FY2016-2017, and a third time for FY2018-2019.  They resume in FY2020 and beyond.  Whether, and when, the caps get relaxed again is the billion — or trillion — dollar question.

National Security Space.  The big national security space issue next year will be President Trump’s proposal to create a Space Force as a sixth military department. If Democrats take control of the House, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) is likely to become the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC).  Smith has already expressed opposition to the idea.  On the other hard, current chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) has not signed on to it either.  HASC had been advocating a more modest reorganization, creating a Space Corps within the Air Force, not an entirely new department.  Space Corps had bipartisan support from the chair and ranking member of HASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN).  They recently reiterated that Space Corps is a better solution than a Space Force, at least for now.

SASC’s new chairman, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who replaced the late Sen. John McCain, also does not seem convinced yet. Nor is Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI).  SASC did not support HASC’s Space Corps language either.

As for appropriations, defense spending, like all spending, will be a big issue next year.  The appropriations committees would have to approve funding to create a new Department of the Space Force. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson put the number at $12.9 billion over five years, with $3.3 billion needed in FY2020.  At the same time, President Trump has directed DOD and other federal agencies to propose FY2020 budgets that are 5 percent less than current spending.  Making all those numbers fit will be quite a challenge.

Pete Visclosky (D-IN) is the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.  He might become chair under Democratic leadership, though as noted above, it is difficult to guess the outcome of future appropriations subcommittee assignments.  He does not appear to have made any public statements about Space Force.

Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (in addition to the full committee).  He is another skeptic. Granted, however, that the Trump Administration has not formally presented its proposal yet.  That will come as part of the FY2020 budget request that will be sent to Congress in February.

What is clear is that whatever the election outcome tomorrow, the Administration has its work cut out to convince Congress that a new military department is needed.


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