NASA, NOAA, FAA Space Office Appropriations Take Step Forward, But Not Defense

NASA, NOAA, FAA Space Office Appropriations Take Step Forward, But Not Defense

Today the Senate passed a package of appropriations bills including those that fund NASA, NOAA and the FAA’s space office.  While there is no guarantee they will be finalized before the Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on November 21, it is a positive development in the FY2020 funding saga.  On the other hand, the package that includes defense appropriations failed a procedural motion and remains in limbo.

The Senate version of H.R. 3055 passed 84-9.  The package of bills, or “minibus,” encompasses the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill, which funds NASA and NOAA (including the Office of Space Commerce); the Transportation-HUD bill that includes the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation; and two others — Agriculture, and Interior-Environment.  The House passed a package with those four bills plus one more (Military Construction-Veterans Affairs) in June.  Milcon-VA bill is not in the Senate minibus, but the two chambers can now proceed to conference on the other four.  The House and Senate have quite different views on a number of NASA activities though they are in sync in rejecting Trump Administration proposals to terminate several science programs and NASA’s STEM Engagement projects.

That is not to say that getting a final deal will happen before the CR expires on November 21.  The House is in recess next week and the impeachment inquiry will consume much of the chamber’s time when it returns.

The FY2020 defense bill did not even get that far.  It is bundled into the Senate version of S. 2740 with three other appropriations bills: Labor-HHS-Education, State-Foreign Operations, and Energy-Water.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought it up for a procedural vote today that required 60 ayes to pass, but the tally was 51-41 and the motion to proceed failed.  The defense bill is controversial in and of itself because of funding for President Trump’s border wall, but the overall package is opposed by Democrats because they feel the Labor-HHS-Education bill is underfunded.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)

Overall, the appropriations process is in a typical state of chaos for this time of year, but the impeachment proceedings are a wild card that could make it even more difficult to resolve.

CRs are loathed by all agencies because they cannot start new programs, terminate old ones, or know how much they have to spend for existing activities during the ongoing fiscal year, which began October 1.

In this case it is especially onerous for NASA, which is trying to execute Trump’s directive to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024 — just 5 years away.  To do that, NASA must move fast to get contracts in place for companies to build the requisite systems, especially landers to take astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Proposals are due next week and NASA wants to award contracts in January, but that probably cannot happen if the agency is operating under a CR.

Another CR appears inevitable, however, it is only a question of how long it will last.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell reportedly have agreed on the goal of completing all the appropriations bills by December 31, but that is just a goal.  Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby is less optimistic, estimating January or February.

Today Shelby praised his Senate colleagues for their bipartisan support of the CJS minibus, but excoriated Democrats for opposing the defense measure.

“Unfortunately, my Democratic colleagues seem more focused on scoring political points than ensuring our military has the certainty and funding it needs to counter our adversaries. … Funding America’s military should be our priority – it should come first.  Our men and women in uniform don’t get to hit the pause button.  They don’t get to shirk their duty.  And neither should Congress.

“Let’s come together – Republicans and Democrats – and provide the resources necessary to maintain the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.  Let’s show our troops that we actually can get our work done.” — Sen. Richard Shelby

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patrick Leahy, shot back that the bill diverts money from military priorities to pay for the border wall.

“I am disappointed that the Republican leadership by taking this step – bowing to the demands of President Trump – is continuing to delay funding for our troops.  This delay is because they insist on including in this bill authority for President Trump to raid American tax dollars from our military – money that is intended for specific military priorities – to pay for his wall, which he promised that Mexico would pay for.  And that is unacceptable.

“The President has already raided $6.2 billion from the Department of Defense (DOD) this year alone for his border wall – all without congressional approval. … We oppose this bill because we are fighting to protect funds that are meant for the women and men of our military and their families.  We oppose this bill because we stand with those patriotic Americans, and we refuse to place the President’s failed campaign promises on their backs.” — Sen. Patrick Leahy

Anything can happen, but the outlook is discouraging.  The same can be said of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that sets policy and recommends funding for DOD.  On Tuesday, Sen. James Inhofe introduced a scaled-down “skinny” version of the NDAA that would continue essential, non-controversial authorities in case agreement remains elusive on that legislation as well.  While there are differences between the House and Senate, creating a Space Force or Space Corps as a sixth military service appears to have bipartisan support, but it needs to be authorized in the NDAA and funded in the defense appropriations act.  Until those bills are enacted, it also is in limbo.

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