NASA Authorization Bill Clears Committee with Bipartisan Support After Last Minute Negotiations

NASA Authorization Bill Clears Committee with Bipartisan Support After Last Minute Negotiations

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a FY2018-2019 NASA authorization bill (H.R. 5503) on a 26-7 bipartisan vote today.  Winning the support of committee Democrats involved last minute negotiations while the markup was underway that resulted in adoption of an amendment restoring $471 million in Earth science funding for FY2019.  That brings the total authorized for NASA in FY2019 to $21.2 billion, which is $1.3 billion more than President Trump requested.

House Science, Space, and Techmology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) at markup of FY2018-2019 NASA Authorization bill, April 17, 2018 (with Democratic committee staffer Pam Whitney in background). Screengrab

The committee first marked up an unrelated bill regarding STEM education.  Just as it was about to begin consideration of the NASA authorization bill, committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and committee staff members became involved in an off-mike conversation that eventually led to a brief recess.

When the markup resumed,  Johnson minced no words, offering a scathing indictment of the substance of the bill as well as the process by which it was being brought before the committee. Calling the bill  “deeply flawed” and adding that “the process that got us to this moment was just as flawed,” she went on to explain her objections.

First, this bill slashes funding for Earth Science by half a billion dollars in FY 19—a quarter of the total Earth Science budget. These cuts are simply another manifestation of the Majority’s continued war on climate science.

However, these reckless cuts are so deep that they will likely threaten more than just climate science at NASA. The Earth Science budget supports numerous programs that help Americans, from aiding farmers to saving American lives in natural disaster response.

Where does all this money go? The Majority diverts it to searching for space aliens and to the President’s unexamined initiative to build an orbiting moon base, among other things.  I wish I were joking.


As problematic as the substance of the bill is, the process that brought us here today is just as problematic. The Majority staff began discussing this legislation with the Minority a couple of weeks ago.  They first provided Minority staff with an early draft two weeks ago.  A significantly different version was provided to the Minority on April 12th. It came with an ultimatum: in essence, if I didn’t agree to support the bill as written, then the Chairman would notice the markup on April 13th with a different, punitive version of the bill.

And that’s what happened, just as Members were leaving town for the weekend.

I really don’t think vindictiveness is a good basis for legislating.  I also don’t think it is very effective in the long run.  But the reality is we are now marking up a partisan bill that has been rushed to markup with childish ultimatums and arbitrary deadlines—in the process, disenfranchising Members on both sides of the aisle from being able to conduct the oversight and hearings that one of our Committee’s most significant agencies warrants.

This is no way to legislate for an agency that accounts for fully one half of the total dollars our Committee authorizes…

— Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Smith defended both the bill and the process.  Regarding the funding cut to Earth science, he once again asserted his position that Earth science is not a core NASA mission and other government agencies should pay for it.  “NASA has, for too long, conducted Earth science work for the benefit of other agencies, without reimbursement,” citing the Landsat program as an example.  As for the process, he insisted that Democrats were consulted about the bill in a timely manner and Republicans “have complied with all requirements, legislative and otherwise.”

What looked like partisan gridlock quickly turned into agreement, however, as Smith called up an amendment by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) to restore the $471 million in Earth science funding that Republicans wanted to cut, which appeared to be the result of the previous minutes of negotiation.  The amendment was adopted first by voice vote and later by a recorded vote of 27-5.

With that, Democratic support for the bill rose and it was approved by the committee 26-7.

Eight other amendments were adopted, beginning with a manager’s amendment that makes both substantive and technical and conforming changes.  Among them is fixing an error in the original version that switched funding numbers for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion.  For FY2019 SLS would get $2.15 billion and Orion $1.35 billion, not the reverse.

The others include a Perlmutter amendment that essentially directs NASA to continue to focus on attempting to get people to Mars by 2033 if not sooner (once again showing his “Mars by 2033” bumper sticker); a Rohrabacher amendment reaffirming congressional concern about orbital debris; and a Foster amendment requiring NASA to provide a cost analysis “including long-term and security costs” of using highly enriched uranium versus low enriched uranium for surface power and in-space propulsion.  The texts of all amendments, approved and withdrawn, that were considered are on the committee’s website.

The original bill authorized $20.7 billion for FY2019, the same amount as appropriated for FY2018. With the restoration of the Earth science funding, the approved total is $21.2 billion.

That is $1.3 billion more than the $19.9 billion President Trump requested.  Authorization bills only recommend funding levels, however.  They do not provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money.

For FY2019, the final version of the bill as reported from committee —

  • Authorizes $4.929 billion (compared to $4.559 billion requested) for deep space human exploration systems: SLS, Orion, Exploration Ground Systems (including a second Mobile Launch Platform for SLS), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities.
  • Supports the Administration’s proposal to eliminate the Space Technology Mission Directorate and merge its remaining activities with technology development in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (and adopts NASA’s new budget structure).
  • Authorizes $6.624 billion for Science (compared to $5.895 billion requested).
    • Authorizes $1.375 billion for astrophysics, compared to $1.185 million requested. Caps spending on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) at $3.2 billion and prohibits NASA from procuring a launch vehicle until the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is operational.  Smith said in opening remarks that although the committee supports JWST “NASA and its contractors must be held accountable” and is looking forward to the report of the JWST Independent Review Board.  The committee is concerned that WFIRST is already encountering similar problems to JWST and therefore caps spending “if” it continues. (President Trump proposed terminating WFIRST.)  The bill adds $190 million for astrophysics overall, of which $180 million is set aside to address recommendations of the JWST and WFIRST reviews that are underway.  The bill also authorizes $10 million for the “search for technosignatures” (the “searching for space aliens” that Johnson referred to).
    • Authorizes $2.637 billion for planetary science (compared to $2.235 billion requested) and specifies $150 million for the Planetary Defense program that includes finding, cataloging and tracking Near Earth Objects and includes support for a space-based infrared camera for NEO searches.
    • Authorizes $1.921 billion for Earth science, the same as FY2018 and $137 million more than requested.
    • Authorizes $691 million for heliophysics, the same as the request.
  • Supports “initial” implementation of  NASA’s ISS Transition Report with the goal of ending direct U.S. support for ISS in 2025 and transitioning to private sector capabilities.  It authorizes the same funding levels for LEO and Spaceflight Operations as requested, a total of $4.625 billion.
  • Supports a 21st Century Aeronautics Research Capabilities Initiative to conduct cutting-edge flight demonstrations. In total it authorizes $685 million for aeronautics, an increase of $45 million above the request.
  • Authorizes $100 million for education (compared to a request of zero).


Update:  This article was updated with additional information about Smith’s position on NASA’s earth science budget and the process for bringing the bill before the committee.

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