The Day After — What's Next For NASA After the Supercommittee Failure?

The Day After — What's Next For NASA After the Supercommittee Failure?

As politicians from both parties blame each other for the collapse of the supercommittee deliberations yesterday, most people are wondering what comes next.

No easy answers are apparent.

By law – the Budget Control Act of 2011 to be specific – the failure of the supercommittee triggers automatic across-the-board spending cuts beginning in 2013, half from “defense” and half from “non-defense” discretionary spending.  The non-defense spending reduction includes up to a 2 percent cut in Medicare payments to providers; Social Security and Medicaid are exempt from cuts.  The remainder of the amount to be cut from non-defense spending would come from agencies like NASA, EPA, the Departments of Interior, Labor, Commerce (including NOAA), Education and so forth.

Of the $1.2 trillion sought, $216 billion is estimated to come from interest savings (since the debt will be lower, the government can pay less interest on that debt).  That leaves about $1 trillion to come from spending cuts: $500 billion from defense and $500 billion from non-defense.  The cuts are spread over 10 years (FY2013-2021).

What “defense” means in this context is being debated.  Some argue the Budget Control Act makes clear it means only the Pentagon, but others insist that other national security spending is included.  However it is defined, considerable attention is being focused on undoing those automatic cuts.  So far no one appears to be objecting to the automatic cuts to non-defense spending.

It is impossible to determine at this stage what such cuts would mean to particular agencies or programs, but New Scientist, citing an expert from AAAS, estimates it at about 8 percent.  The cut would be applied “across-the-board,” meaning that each activity would be cut by the same amount.  This “meat-axe” approach, compared to a “scalpel” where cuts could be made based on merit or other determinants, is part of what has everyone up in arms.   This draconian penalty for supercommittee failure was deliberately included in the Act as an incentive for them to reach agreement.   It obviously did not work.   President Obama has stated that he will veto any attempt to change the automatic cuts.

The automatic cuts will not take place until January 2013, presumably after Congress has acted on the President’s FY2013 budget request that will be submitted in February 2012.  The cuts are for FY2013 through FY2021 and complicated formulas are applied that make the entire situation quite confusing.

Kicking the deficit reduction can down the road into the maelstrom of an election year, as congressional Democrats and Republicans now have done, is an interesting choice.  Politicians have spent the last day not only pointing fingers, but offering their assessments of which party is now in a better bargaining position.

Gauging the potential impact on federally funded science and technology programs in general, or the space program in particular, is a fool’s errand at this point other than recognizing the obvious – budgets will be even more constrained.   How the Administration crafts the FY2013 budget request and how Congress acts on it will be critical since the cuts will apply to the amounts in the FY2013 appropriations bills.  Determining priorities clearly will be a key factor.

In an exchange during a Senate hearing last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) revealed that at a September meeting between Senators Hutchison and Bill Nelson (D-FL), Bolden, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, agreement was reached that NASA’s top three priorities are the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, enhancements to the International Space Station including commercial crew, and the James Webb Space Telescope.  In an across-the board cut situation, each of those would be cut by the same amount, along with each other NASA activity.  Whether the Administration and Congress craft the budget to protect those priorities at the expense of other NASA activities may become apparent in February when the budget is submitted to Congress.

Although NASA is one of the lucky agencies whose FY2012 budgets has been enacted, the long-term stability of that budget is just as ambiguous as ever.  The only certainty seems to be that NASA’s budget woes are far from over.

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