Shutdown Continues, But What’s Ahead for Space Policy in the New Congress?

Shutdown Continues, But What’s Ahead for Space Policy in the New Congress?

One week from today, the 116th Congress will convene.  Democrats will control the House; Republicans the Senate.  Considering today’s state of affairs, with one-quarter of the government (in terms of discretionary spending), including NASA and NOAA, shut down because funding has lapsed, space policy issues are not likely to be at the top of the congressional to-do list.  Still, much remains to be done.

The failure of Congress and President Trump to reach agreement on FY2019 appropriations for NASA, NOAA and other departments and agencies funded by seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills clearly is the most pressing issue.  In dispute is Trump’s demand for $5 billion in FY2019 for his border wall and Democratic opposition to it.

DOD and several other big agencies that together consume 75 percent of discretionary spending, and Congress itself, got their appropriations bills approved in September, so they are not affected.  NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA), the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Transportation and others are not so lucky.  They shut down all but essential operations when the Continuing Resolution  (CR) expired at midnight December 21 and will remain that way until a new appropriations bill is enacted.

One might hope a resolution will be reached before next Thursday when the 116th Congress begins, but that seems increasingly unlikely.  The Senate will not meet again for votes until Wednesday, January 2, the last full day of the 115th Congress.

It would not be surprising for Democrats to pass a bill to reopen the government their first day in control of the House, but whether it will be something the Senate and the President will accept remains to be seen. Democrats strongly support border security, but not a border wall.  Semantics may play a role in a compromise, if the parties want to reach one.

Whatever deal is made must be able to get a majority vote in the House (which will have 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans, with one race undecided), 60 votes in the Senate (which will have 53 Republicans, 45  Democrats, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats), and the President’s signature. Congress can override a presidential veto, but it is unusual.

Essential activities may continue during a government shutdown.  At NASA, operations of the International Space Station (ISS) and robotic probes like OSIRIS-REx, which will enter orbit around Bennu for the first time Monday night, and New Horizons, which will fly past Ultima Thule at 12:33 am ET Tuesday, may proceed uninterrupted. But development and testing of spacecraft and launch vehicles, like Orion and SLS, and work to award contracts, release reports and myriad other duties are suspended.

Non-essential operations like social media accounts and NASA TV ordinarily also are suspended and the OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons teams have been redirecting everyone to non-government websites to follow the action.  Surprisingly, however, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted this evening that NASA’s Twitter accounts and NASA TV will be available for mission coverage.

The impacts of the shutdown will not be fully understood until its duration is known.

Apart from funding, many space policy issues remain on the table for the upcoming Congress.

Only a few space policy-related bills became law in the 115th Congress.

  • The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, enacted March 2017
  • The Weather Research and Forecasting Act (including provisions affecting NOAA’s satellite programs), enacted April 2017
  • The FY2018 and FY2019 National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs), enacted December 2017 and August 2018 respectively
  • The Apollo 1 Memorial Act (as part of the FY2018 NDAA), enacted December 2017
  • The FAA Reauthorization Act (including provisions affecting the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation), enacted October 2018
  • The Women in Aerospace Education Act, enacted December 2018
  • Redesignating a NASA facility the Katherine Johnson  Independent Verification and Validation Facility, enacted December 2018
  • NASA Enhanced Use Leasing Extension Act (passed the House and Senate, waiting to be signed by the President)

The following are among the space policy bills on which action was not completed.  If a bill introduced in one Congress is not enacted by the time Congress ends, it dies, so the effort must begin anew.

In addition, several space-related nominations have not been confirmed by the Senate.

  • Barry Lee Myers to be Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA
  • Kelvin Droegemeier to be Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
  • Kimberly Reed to be President of the Export-Import Bank
  • Spencer Bachus III, Judith Delzoppo Pryor, and Claudia Slacik to be members of the Board of Directors of the Export-Import Bank
  • Mark Greenblatt to be Inspector General of the Export-Import Bank

Droegemeier appeared to have widespread support during his confirmation hearing.  It would be a long shot, but non-controversial nominations like his could still get through when the Senate meets on January 2.  If not, anyone who is not confirmed will have to be renominated in the 116th Congress.

The lack of final congressional action on many of the space policy issues it had under consideration means slow going for implementing Trump’s three Space Policy Directives (SPDs).

A fourth SPD on national security space issues is rumored to be imminent.

Executive Orders like the SPDs are important statements of an Administration’s goals, policies and strategies, but implementing them often requires congressional action.

The President can direct NASA to restore missions to the lunar surface as part of its human exploration plan, but Congress must agree — or at least not disagree — and provide the money to execute such missions.  At the moment, the impasse between Trump and Congress over funding for the border wall means NASA cannot even proceed with planning.

The President can direct executive branch departments to modernize regulations for commercial space transportation and commercial remote sensing satellites, but creating and funding a new Bureau at the Department of Commerce to oversee space regulation and establishing legal requirements or restrictions on that regulation is up to Congress.  The President can choose the Department of Commerce (DOC) over the Department of Transportation (DOT) to regulate non-traditional space activities, but Congress can disagree and legislate a different outcome.

The President can state a policy of creating a civilian space situational awareness (SSA) office at DOC to provide SSA data to civil and commercial space operators and thus relieve the Department of Defense (DOD) of that task, but Congress must provide the resources to DOC to take that on, and could decide to assign it to DOT instead.

The President’s intention to create a sixth military department, the Department of the Space Force, similarly requires congressional action, although the White House and DOD believe they have authority to tackle other aspects of reorganizing how national security space programs are managed.  The White House is going ahead with creation of unified combatant U.S. Space Command, and other steps may follow soon.  A Space Force, though, whether as a new military department as Trump wants or as part of the Air Force as DOD reportedly is recommending, will need congressional approval.  It is likely to be the most contentious space policy issue next year.

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