By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
Maryland Senator and NASA backer Barbara Mikulski is set to get a big promotion, moving up to become the first female chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. The new role will give Mikulski, who has served in the Senate for 26 years, greater influence over spending on the entire federal budget.
The unexpected decision came after the death last week of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Several other senators in line for the position reportedly passed on the assignment.
Mikulski is the current chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommitee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, which oversees funding for NASA, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mikulski has been a strong supporter of the space program because her state includes the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She has been instrumental in preventing the James Webb Space Telescope from being canceled over the program’s massive cost overruns and lengthy schedule delays.
Mikulski was also instrumental in convincing Orbital Sciences Corporation to launch its new Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia. The Goddard field center runs the Wallops Flight Facility where the spaceport is located. The state of Maryland supports MARS through a cooperative agreement with the commonwealth of Virginia, which owns and operates the launch facility.
The senator’s efforts to protect the Webb telescope and Maryland’s interests have come at a cost to other parts of NASA’s budget as the space agency has struggled to field a new generation of human spacecraft to replace the space shuttle and carry out a range of other programs with a flat budget. The Mars exploration program suffered a severe cut, with NASA pulling out of the European-led ExoMars rover program and abandoning any efforts to send a spacecraft to the Red Planet during the 2018 launch window.
How Mikulski’s promotion will affect NASA, Maryland and federal spending overall is uncertain due to a series of political and budgetary limitations.
Mikulski, 76, will take over the panel at a time when the federal government is focused on deficit reduction, meaning the committee will face more hard choices about cuts than about investments. Its influence has waned somewhat since lawmakers banned earmarks — or pet projects often traded for votes — last year.
But the committee nevertheless has tremendous sway over federal purse strings, which means Mikulski will be in a position not only to set national policy but to protect the significant presence the federal government has in Maryland — including several agencies that are based in the state….
Mikulski has served on the Appropriations Committee since she joined the Senate in 1987 — a rare assignment for a freshman member. Now the most senior woman in Congress, Mikulski has a reputation for fiery oratory on the floor and for a persistent resolve in fighting for Maryland’s interests.
“There is still a significant federal presence in the state of Maryland, and as chair she is in a position to make sure that those federal entities and those federal employees in her state get a fair shake in the budget appropriations process,” said J. Keith Kennedy, a former Appropriations Committee staff chief who is a managing director at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Washington….
The federal government is supposed to be funded through a series of appropriations bills that pass through the committee, though gridlock has recently forced Congress to keep the government running through stop-gap measures or massive spending bills that cover multiple departments. Mikulski said she hoped to change that practice.
The Baltimore Sun has more about Mikulski’s appointment.