Science Committee Democrats Expect Action on Commercial Space Issues in New Congress

Science Committee Democrats Expect Action on Commercial Space Issues in New Congress

Following the defeat of the Space Frontier Act in the House yesterday, Democratic staff of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee said today that the issues are important and expect the committee to be active on them in the 116th Congress, which begins in less than two weeks.  During floor debate on the bill, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), criticized the process used to bring the bill to the floor, arguing that she did not think many of the issues had been vetted sufficiently. She is expected to chair the committee next year.

In an emailed statement to, Democratic Science Committee staff said:

 “The bill likely would have passed if considered under regular order with time for proper vetting. Attempting to push through a complex piece of legislation under suspension on a chaotic day on the floor as the agencies mentioned in the bill are facing a shutdown is a prescription for failure. The matters addressed in the bill are worthy of attention and we expect the Science Committee to be active on them in the 116th Congress.”

The bill was brought up under an expedited procedure called suspension of the rules on what was expected to be the last day of work for the 115th Congress. As events unfolded, Congress did not adjourn for the year because they and the President could not agree on funding the government.  Departments and agencies funded by seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills shut down at midnight last night except for essential operations or activities that are not funded by appropriations.  They include the three departments and agencies most affected by the legislation — the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and NASA.

Although Congress remains in session, it is unlikely the Space Frontier Act, S. 3277, will see further action before noon on January 3 when the 115th Congress ends and the 116th Congress begins.  If a bill is not enacted before a Congress ends, it dies.  A new bill must be introduced in the next Congress and the process begins again.

S. 3277 passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Thursday and was sent to the House, where it was brought up under suspension Friday morning.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

One advantage of bringing a bill to the floor under suspension is that it does not have to get a rule from the House Rules Committee. Under the circumstances, it was the only realistic way for it to be considered by the House in this Congress.  The disadvantage is that it requires the approval of two-thirds of Members present and voting instead of a simple majority.  Also, the time for debate is limited and amendments are not permitted.

The bill was defeated 239-137, with 57 not voting.  That was not sufficient to get past the required two-thirds threshold.  Of the 137 no votes, 130 were Democratic.  Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, had mounted a campaign to kill the bill and he succeeded.

Johnson expressed only tepid support for the bill during floor debate: “Many of the provisions have not been seriously vetted by the Science Committee. I doubt very much whether they were at all vetted by anyone in the Senate. … This is no way to legislate.”  House SS&T Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) also had a list of criticisms, but both of them did ask for the bill to pass despite its flaws.  Smith is retiring and will not return in the next Congress.

Democrats won control of the House in the mid-term elections, so what happens next in the House will fall to Johnson and, perhaps, DeFazio who is expected to chair the House T&I Committee.  Some view his decision to kill the bill as an indication that he intends to try to assert more authority over commercial space launch issues.  His committee oversees DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  Commercial space launches are regulated, facilitated and promoted by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is part of the FAA.  However, House SS&T has jurisdiction over that office.

The main thrust of S. 3277 is modernizing regulation of commercial space launches and commercial remote sensing satellites and creating a new structure for the government to oversee new non-traditional commercial space activities to ensure the United States is in compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Most Members of Congress and their staffs have left town for the holidays, ready to return if and when a deal is made on reopening the government agencies that now are shuttered.   That apparently is not expected until after Christmas.  The Senate is not scheduled to meet again for votes until Thursday.  (A pro forma session is scheduled for Monday, but no legislative business takes place during pro forma sessions.)  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised Senators that they will have 24 hours notice before a roll call vote is called.

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