What’s Happening in Space Policy December 25, 2017 – January 5, 2018

What’s Happening in Space Policy December 25, 2017 – January 5, 2018

Here is our list of space policy events for TWO weeks, December 25, 2017 – January 5, 2018, and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess this week for the Christmas-New Year’s holidays and will return on January 3.

During the Weeks


This coming week between Christmas and the New Year is a respite for many people.  We are not aware of any space policy-related events, though there still are some launches scheduled (see a list on SpaceflightNow.com).

The following week, the first week of the New Year, will see Congress begin the 2nd session of the 115th Congress.  A Congress lasts two years.  Each of the years is a “session.”  Congress finally ended the 1st session last week and the 2nd session begins January 3, so the break is less than two weeks.  It’s an important demarcation, however, as we explain below under nominations.  We know of only one space policy event that week (a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon with Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson on January 5), so instead of a list of events, today we thought we’d provide a brief look at what’s coming up in Congress. It punted a lot of its work into next year.

  • Congress did not complete action on FY2018 appropriations or reach agreement on whether and by how much to raise the spending caps set in law by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The government — including DOD, NASA and NOAA — is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on January 19.  If nothing else happens, and Congress keeps extending the CR, it will exceed the BCA caps.  That would trigger automatic across-the-board cuts called sequestration.  The FY2018 appropriations bills approved by the House and recommended by the Senate Appropriations Committee would also exceed the limits and trigger sequestration.  Reaching agreement on how much the government may spend in FY2018 (which began on October 1) and how to spend it surely is at the top of the list when Congress returns.  Note that the President’s budget request for FY2019 should be sent to Congress on the first Monday of February (February 5 in this case) though it is not unusual for the request for the next year to be late if Congress is delayed in approving the budget for the current year.
  • The Senate did not complete action on nominations for key positions related to civil, military and commercial space activities.  Senate rules require that if a nomination is neither rejected nor approved by the Senate during a session of Congress, it may not act on that nomination until the President re-nominates the individual.  (The Congressional Research Service has a handy report on the appointment and confirmation process that explains this rule.)  It may simply be a paperwork exercise, but is a necessary step in the process.  So all of these individuals will have to be renominated by President Trump.
    • Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s nomination to be NASA Administrator.  The nomination was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on November 8 on a party-line vote and has not been brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote yet.
      • All Democrats on the committee voted against him in part because they do not think he has the right technical credentials to lead NASA, particularly at a time when the agency is getting ready to begin flights of three new human spaceflight vehicles (SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, and NASA’s Orion).  Other Democratic concerns are his views on climate change (until recently he asserted it was not human-induced and NASA spends almost $2 billion a year studying earth science, leading to fears he could try to prevent scientists from presenting their research findings if they did not comport with his viewpoint) and on LGBTQ issues (since he will be managing a workforce of 18,000 people).
      • More broadly, many Democrats and some Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, object to a politician leading NASA.  Rubio made his reservations clear as soon as the nomination was announced and has repeated them since.  He is not a member of the Senate Commerce Committee so could not vote at that step in the process.
      • A nominee needs 50 votes to pass the Senate, with the Vice President breaking the tie.  For the past year, there have been 52 Republicans in the Senate, so Bridenstine could lose two Republican votes and still be confirmed.  It is unlikely the nomination would be brought up for a vote unless Senate leadership was certain it would pass. The fact that the nomination has not been brought forward therefore suggests that at least three Republicans have not pledged their vote. Once Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones is sworn in (he reportedly will be certified as the winner of the election on December 28), the Republican majority will narrow to 51. What that means for Bridenstine’s chances is anyone’s guess.  Senators may change their minds for many reasons.  (Yes, we have heard the rumors of who the other Senators are that are reluctant to vote for him, but they have not said so publicly to our knowledge, so will not be identified here.)
      • Meanwhile, Robert Lightfoot, continues as Acting NASA Administrator.  He was the top civil servant at NASA during the Obama Administration, so when the political appointees (Charlie Bolden and Dava Newman) left, he became the acting head of the agency.  He has been in that position since January 20, the longest NASA has operated without a presidentially-appointed administrator.
    • AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers’ nomination to be NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.  The nomination was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on December 13 on a party-line vote, but has not been brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote yet.
      • All Democrats voted against him largely because he is not a scientist, but a businessman and a lawyer, and there are concerns that his connection to AccuWeather (owned by his brother and employing other family members) presents a conflict of interest.  Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the committee, pointed out that in 2005 Myers tried (unsuccessfully) to get legislation passed to prohibit the National Weather Service (NWS) from providing products that could be obtained from commercial sources.  Nelson said that would have directly benefited AccuWeather while potentially depriving Americans from “access to free and potentially life-saving government weather forecasts.”  NWS is part of NOAA.
      • Meanwhile, the Senate did confirm Trump’s nominee for NOAA’s Deputy Administrator (and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere) — RDML  Timothy Gallaudet (Ret.) — who is serving as Acting NOAA Administrator now.
    • Mike Griffin’s nomination to be Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering (USD/R&E).   Griffin has been nominated by President Trump for two positions (explained below).  No nomination hearing has been held on either yet.  Griffin is well known in space policy circles as a former NASA Administrator (2005-2009). Since then he was a Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and later CEO and Chairman  of Schafer Corp. (which was sold to Belcan earlier this year).
      • At congressional direction, DOD is reorganizing its acquisition organization. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD/ATL) is being split in two as of February 1, 2018.  On that day, USD/ATL will be replaced by an Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (USD/A&S) and an Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD/R&E).  Ellen Lord, the current USD/ATL, is expected to remain as USD/A&S.  Griffin has been nominated for the USD/R&E slot.
      • Because the USD/R&E position will not exist until February 1, the Trump Administration also nominated Griffin to serve temporarily as Principal Deputy USD/ATL to get him on board as soon as possible.  As the clock ticks, the Principal Deputy USD/ATL nomination may become moot.
      • Griffin must be approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) whose chairman, Sen. John McCain, is being treated for brain cancer.  McCain’s schedule for attendance in the Senate is up in the air.  The committee could move forward without him, but time will tell what the plan is.
    • Four Export-Import Bank Directors.  The Senate Banking Committee approved the nominations of four individuals to serve on the Board of Directors of the ExIm Bank on December 19.  The Bank makes loans to foreign entities to buy U.S. goods, like communications satellites.  If approved, that would give the Bank a quorum so it could resume normal business operations. After a legislative struggle in 2015 to reauthorize the Bank, it has operated with only two out of five members on the Board, which is not a quorum.  That restricts them to approving loans only up to $10 million.
      • Although the Banking Committee approved four nominees (Kimberly Reed to be First Vice President; and Judith DelZoppo Pryor, Claudia Slacik, and former Congressman Spencer Bacchus III to be members of the Board), it rejected Trump’s nomination of former Rep. Scott Garrett to be President of the Bank.  All Democrats and two of the 12 Republicans on the committee voted against him because he was a strident opponent of the Bank when he was in the House.  During his confirmation hearing, he did not convince them that his position really had changed to now be a supporter.  Republican Senator Mike Rounds said he believes Garrett is “a principled man who simply believes in abolishment of the Bank…” and thus is not the right person to lead it.
      • Whether the Senate will move forward with the other nominees or wait until someone else is nominated by Trump to be Bank President remains to be seen.  Until then, the ExIm Board is down to just one person following the resignation of its Acting President Charles Hall.
  • Legislation to Update Commercial Space Regulation.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (H.R. 2809) on June 8, but no further action has occurred.  A companion Senate bill has not been introduced.
  • Space Weather Legislation.  The Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) on May 2.  A companion bill was introduced in the House (H.R. 3086), but no action has been taken yet.
  • U.S.-Israel Space Cooperation and STEM Education.  Last week the House passed the U.S.-Israel Space Cooperation Act (H.R. 1159) and the Women in Aerospace Education Act (H.R. 4254).  The latter is designed to encourage women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.  No action has been taken in the Senate on either bill.

In short, there’s a lot of work to be done just to finish up what was started this year, never mind what might arise in 2018.

Meanwhile, have a very happy holiday!


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