NASA FY2017 Budget Request Sets Up Familiar Battles With Congress

NASA FY2017 Budget Request Sets Up Familiar Battles With Congress

NASA’s FY2017 budget request seems certain to spark the same disputes with Congress that have characterized that relationship for much of the Obama Administration.  The request cuts funding for three programs Congress holds as its highest priorities — the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa — and requests more money for earth science, which is controversial in Republican circles.  Confusion over whether NASA is requesting $18.3 billion or $19 billion is an additional complication this year.

Congressional reaction to the budget request could hardly be described as unexpected.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) blasted the request as one that “disproportionately increases Earth Science” while it “continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible.”   

Smith’s Democratic counterpart, committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not specifically defend NASA’s request.  In her statement, the space program was mentioned only in passing.  She praised the overall request for science and technology as ensuring that the United States “can compete in a 21st Century global economy” and listed civil space activities among the investments that help “meet our greatest challenges…for decades to come.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, did not specifically mention NASA either, but called the budget request “wildly irresponsible” and said the “only positive news coming from this budget blueprint is that it is President Obama’s last.”  Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is Shelby’s counterpart on the NASA subcommittee and also is vice chairwoman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, similarly did not mention NASA in her statement.  instead, she focused on the budget overall, praising it as one that she looks “forward to supporting through the appropriations process.”

The programs likely to cause the most consternation as the budget process proceeds are SLS and Orion, which are being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), the robotic Europa mission, and earth science.  

SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Shelby’s home state, and he has led congressional efforts to add substantial amounts for it in prior NASA budgets.  The request for FY2017 is $1.31 billion, almost $700 million less than the $2 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016.  The Orion spacecraft, which will be launched by SLS to take crews beyond LEO, also is cut, though to a lesser degree — $1.12 billion requested versus $1.27 billion appropriated in FY2016.

Meanwhile, NASA is requesting $1.185 billion for the commercial crew program.  While that is slightly less than the $1.244 billion in FY2016, Congress has been lukewarm, at best, about commercial crew since it began in FY2011 and NASA has had to fight for every dollar.  FY2016 is the first year that Congress appropriated the full request for the program.

Sending a probe to Europa is a passion of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  He is confident that NASA will find signs of life there, making this a mission of critical importance in his view.   He has added substantial funds for such a mission for the past three years.  In the FY2016 budget, he funded the program at $175 million (the request was $30 million), specified that it include a lander as well as an orbiter and that it be launched in 2022 using SLS.  For FY2017, NASA is requesting only $49.6 million and projecting a launch in the late 2020s on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), not SLS.  (NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski stressed today during a media telecon describing the budget request that NASA is not precluding an SLS launch, but does not have pricing details yet on which to base a cost estimate.)  NASA’s budget documents say that accelerating the mission from the late 2020s to 2022 “is not recommended, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio.”  As required, NASA provided the budget profile that would be needed to achieve a 2022 launch:  $194 million in FY2017, $272 million in FY2018, $456 million in FY2019, $678 million in FY2020, and $482 million in FY2021. 

Not only does the request not include the type of Europa mission Culberson has in mind, but it cuts overall funding for planetary exploration, which is very popular on Capitol Hill.  The request is $1.519 million, $112 million less than the $1.631 million appropriated for FY2016.

Meanwhile, the agency is asking for another increase for its earth science program, $2.032 billion compared to the $1.921 billion appropriated for FY2016.  Smith and other Republicans are particularly opposed to NASA spending on earth science.  Part of the controversy is tied to the climate change debate, while another objection is that NASA should be spending its money on exploring the universe, not studying the Earth, which other agencies can do.

The debates over SLS, Orion, commercial crew and earth science are familiar ground.  While it is always risky to try to estimate what Congress will do, it seems likely that the arguments over the next several months will follow a predictable path.

One additional complication this year is that NASA describes its budget request as $19 billion, but it actually is $18.3 billion for funds that are within the jurisdiction of the appropriations committees.   The remainder is what NASA is calling “mandatory” funding that is outside their purview.

The federal budget is divided into mandatory and discretionary spending.  As those words imply, mandatory spending must be spent because of laws already in force that set out requirements for the funds to be paid, such as Social Security or Medicare payments to people eligible for benefits.  Mandatory spending also includes interest that must be paid on the national debt, for example.   Discretionary spending is the money that Congress debates each year through the appropriations process for agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health to NASA.   As Radzanowski explained today, mandatory spending consumes approximately three-quarters of the federal budget, with discretionary spending making up the other quarter.

As NASA’s budget documents show, the $19.025 billion NASA budget request is composed of $18.262 billion from discretionary spending and $763 million in mandatory spending.  The $763 million is part of $4 billion the Obama Administration hopes to obtain from the mandatory side of the ledger to fund R&D across the government that is outside the budget caps the President and Congress agreed to last October.  A White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) fact sheet released today says “$4 billion of the overall $152 billion investment in R&D [in FY2017] is new mandatory funding” that ensures adequate R&D investments.

Apparently the idea is to cut mandatory spending and redirect some of it to R&D.  OMB’s FY2017 budget book states that it includes “117 cuts, consolidations, and savings proposals, which are projected to save over $14 billion in 2017.”  That is comprised of $5.9 billion in savings under the discretionary part of the budget and $8.2 billion in savings in mandatory spending.  Some of those savings would be directed to other purposes as detailed in Table S-9 of the OMB document.  Included is $664 million for NASA that would be spent (“outlayed”) over three years ($325 million in FY2017, $283 million in FY2018, and $56 million in FY2019).  In addition, President Obama is proposing a 10-year “21st Century Clean Transportation System” funded by a fee to be paid by oil companies.  NASA’s aeronautics program would receive part of those funds — $100 million in FY2017 — to develop a low carbon emission aircraft according to OSTP Director John Holdren at his own budget briefing today.

The $664 million to be obtained from cuts to mandatory spending and redirected to NASA, plus the $100 million for NASA’s aeronautics program from the 21st Century Clean Transportation System, are what comprise the $763 million in “mandatory” spending that NASA includes in its $19 billion request (the $1 million difference is a rounding error) according to knowledgable sources.

How realistic it is that any of that $763 million will ever actually exist, not to mention the process by which Congress would allocate it to NASA if it did, are open questions.   From a practical standpoint, at least as far as has been able to determine today, congressional appropriators are being asked to fund NASA at $18.3 billion and the rest of it is hypothetical.  Indeed, Table S-11, “Funding Levels for Appropriated (‘Discretionary’) Programs by Agency,” in OMB’s budget book shows the President’s request for NASA as $18.3 billion.

It may not matter, though. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees made it clear last week that they consider the President’s budget request irrelevant.  Coupled with the Obama Administration’s decision to continue the same NASA budget battles as prior years, the situation suggests that Congress will forge its own path.  It substantially increased funding for NASA above the President’s request in FY2015 and FY2016 and NASA advocates undoubtedly are hoping that the same will hold true for FY2017 regardless of whether one considers the request to be $18.3 billion or $19 billion.

Update:  The sentence about the $18.3 billion in OMB’s Table S-11 and the link to the OMB budget book in the next to last paragraph was added for clarity.

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