NASA FY2018 Funding Bill Advances in Congress

NASA FY2018 Funding Bill Advances in Congress

The House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA approved its FY2018 funding bill today, while its Senate counterpart held a hearing on the request.  These are only the initial steps on a long road to a final budget deal, but there is no question that NASA continues to have strong bipartisan support from its appropriators.

The House Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee approved boosting NASA’s budget to $19.872 billion, $218 million more than FY2017 and $780 million more than President Trump requested.  It adopted the draft bill released yesterday by voice vote without amendment.

That does not mean the bill has universal support.  Overall, the bill provides about one percent less than FY2017 for all the departments and agencies it funds.  If NASA, for example, gets more money, others get less.

The top Democrat on the subcommittee, José Serrano (D-NY), said that he could not support the bill in its current form.  He listed a number of cuts in the bill to non-NASA activities as objectionable, such as to the Legal Services Corporation, to the Census Bureau as it prepares for the 2020 census, and a 19 percent cut to climate science at NOAA.  As for NASA, he revealed that the subcommittee is cutting an additional $50 million from NASA’s earth science budget compared to the request, which is already a reduction of $167 million from FY2017.  (Such details are not in the bill itself, but are in an accompanying explanatory report that will be released 24 hours before the bill is marked up by the full committee.)

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the top Democrat on the full committee, made a broader complaint about the bill — that the House has not yet adopted a Budget Resolution setting the total amount of federal funding available for FY2018.

Strictly speaking, the House and Senate are supposed to agree on a Budget Resolution setting that figure, after which specific amounts are allocated to each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees to spend.  Republicans denounced Democrats for not passing Budget Resolutions when Democrats were in control, but have had their own challenges in doing so.  The chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), has been unable to get agreement even among her Republican colleagues.  There is broad agreement to increase defense spending, but not on compensating cuts to non-defense spending.

Indeed, subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX) expressed hope that there will be a budget agreement that will provide more money for his subcommittee so it can “backfill some of the holes” in what was approved today.  Anything is possible, but Congress has a long journey ahead to decide on FY2018 funding and deal with increasing the debt limit this fall, all while the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act are in effect.

Lowey said the committee should not be “patting ourselves on the back” for moving forward on appropriations bills like CJS because there still is no Budget Resolution or “any semblance of a plan to keep the government funded and avoid a debt default.”

Nonetheless, when the vote was called, none of the Democrats said “no.”  That is not really surprising since today’s action merely moves the bill from subcommittee to full committee where the debate can continue.  No date was announced for full committee markup.

Over on the Senate side, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot fielded questions from CJS subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL); the new top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), replacing Barbara Mikulski (who retired) as the Ranking Member; and other subcommittee members.

This was the third hearing on NASA’s budget request this month.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee each held their hearings on June 8. At all three hearings, concern was expressed about the Trump Administration’s proposal to eliminate NASA’s Office of Education and five earth science programs (PACE, RBI, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3, and the earth facing instruments on DSCOVR).  Support for the Office of Education is bipartisan, while support for earth science is primarily from Democratic members.

Today, Senators from both parties made clear that they object to dismantling the Office of Education and its EPSCoR, Space Grant, MUREP, and  SEAP programs.  Lightfoot explained that NASA hopes to be able to continue engaging with students through programs in the Space Technology Mission Directorate and Science Mission Directorate, but conceded they were not replacements for the terminated programs.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who won Mikulski’s seat and now sits on the CJS subcommittee (though as a junior member) and Shaheen spoke out against the earth science cuts.  Lightfoot explained that he was given direction to cut the budget and decisions were made based on whether a program was recommended in the 2007 Decadal Survey for earth science, how the program was performing, or if NASA had other ways to get the needed data.  “With the budget box we were in .. that was how we made the decisions.”  Shaheen was not convinced that was the reason for terminating the earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR.   She characterized it as a political decision.

The RESTORE-L satellite servicing program was also a topic of considerable discussion.  NASA had been planning to develop technology to refuel a satellite in low Earth orbit and demonstrate the technology by refueling the Landsat 7 satellite.  The Trump Administration wants to limit NASA to only developing the technology, not demonstrating it, and merge NASA’s program with a different satellite servicing technology development effort at DARPA.

West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) along with Van Hollen debated that decision.  Lightfoot argued that NASA will develop the technology and turn it over to the private sector to use through a public private partnership.  The Senators were skeptical that the private sector would step in without more NASA involvement.  West Virginia University is involved in RESTORE-L, which is managed at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Shelby’s questions illustrated his continued strong support for the Space Launch System and criticism of the commercial crew program.  At the end of the hearing, however, he asked a more general question — what is NASA’s biggest challenge today.

Stability, Lightfoot replied.  While expressing gratitude for the strong bipartisan budget support for NASA on Capitol Hill, he noted that the Administration’s proposal is for NASA’s budget to remain flat funded at $19.092 billion for the “outyears” (the next four years after FY2018), without an adjustment even for inflation.  “We’re not working on one-year programs here. When you look at things like flat outyears … that’s $4.5 billion in potential lost buying power.  How do I plan for that?”

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