Congress, White House Spar Over Ban on Space Cooperation With China

The White House and Congress is having a Constitutional tussle over an effort by lawmakers to prohibit any cooperation between NASA and China on space without the the legislature’s specific approval. Science Now explains that the conflict pits the Obama Administration’s prerogative to conduct foreign policy vs. Congress’s power of the purse:

The ban is part of the 2011 budget approved last month to avert a government shutdown. It was crafted by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), a fierce critic of China who chairs a House spending committee that oversees several science agencies. The ban says that no funds can be used by NASA or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” It also prevents any NASA facility from hosting “official Chinese visitors.”

Appearing today before that panel to defend the Administration’s 2012 budget request for science, presidential advisor John Holdren told Wolf that, in effect, the ban doesn’t apply to the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy. That authority, Holdren explained, extends to a bilateral agreement on scientific cooperation that Holdren and China’s science minister signed in January that builds upon a 1979 pact that has spawned activities between many U.S. agencies and their Chinese counterparts.

Representative John Culberson (R-TX) warned Holdren that any effort to circumvent the ban would have severe consequences:

You need to remember that Congress enacts these laws and it’s the chief executive’s job to enforce them. … Now if anyone in your office, or at NASA, participates or collaborates or coordinates in any way with China, you’re in violation of the statute. And frankly, you’re endangering your funding and NASA’s funding … and it’s up to the chairman and this committee to decide how to enforce the law or what remedies are available. … You have a huge problem on your hands.

It’s not entirely clear what Culberson has in mind, but one imagines that it involves cutting funding to OSTP, whose office is in Washington, D.C., and NASA programs that are being largely done outside of Texas like commercial crew. Otherwise, Culberson would just be shooting himself in the foot.

I’m with the Administration on this one. If Congress passed these restrictions every time it got angry at a foreign country, our foreign policy would be at the mercy of a disparate group of 535 people who can’t even pass a budget on time. Nothing would ever get done. Prohibitions like this one should be rare and limited in scope. This one is just a bit too restrictive.