GOP Looks to Provide NASA With Financial Relief While House Members Plot Power Grab

Capitol Building
Marcia Smith over at Space Policy Online reports that the GOP has introduced a measure in the House that would provide some relief for NASA on funding commercial crew and the Space Launch System despite the sequestration of funds that began last week.

The continuing resolution bill would provide full funding for the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The government is now operating under a continuing resolution that ends on March 27. If no agreement is reached by the deadline, the federal government would shut down.

Smith reports the bill’s provisions include:

As for NASA, the bill apparently holds NASA to its FY2012 funding level adjusted for the sequester.   Within those constraints, however, it adds funding above the FY2012 levels for the Space Launch System (SLS), commercial crew, exploration R&D, and SLS ground operations, and also allows a larger transfer of funds from the Exploration account to the Construction account for construction activities related to SLS and Orion.  Funding for Space Operations and Cross-Agency Support would be reduced to partially compensate for the increases in the Exploration account.

Funding for the commercial crew program has been the subject of particular interest.  NASA requested $830 million for FY2013.  The House passed a FY2013 appropriations bill for NASA that provided $500 million.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $525 million in a bill that was never passed by the Senate.  This CR would provide the amount recommended by the Senate committee.   In FY2012, commercial crew received $406 million, so the amount in this CR is more than NASA would have gotten if it were held to its FY2012 level, but less than what it wanted for FY2013.

Smith accurately describes this as a zero-sum game and questions whether the White House and Congressional Democrats will agree to any measure that still includes deep cuts in discretionary spending imposed by sequestration.

While they wait to see if the bill does anything to help avert a March 27 shutdown of the federal government, House GOP members are busying themselves with an effort to wrestle space policy-making power away from the Obama Administration. Their solution, in essence: form a committee, which is what Congress does the best.

Culberson’s bill would set a six-year fixed term for the NASA administrator, who along with a deputy and chief financial officer would be selected by the White House from a list of three nominees provided by an 11-member NASA board of directors. The board, another creation of the proposed legislation, would be made up of presidential and congressional appointees, who would serve three-year terms.

The bill would give board members responsibility for preparing NASA’s annual budget request for congressional appropriators, and direct NASA to send its request simultaneously to the White House and Congress each year.

Currently, the NASA administrator and deputy administrator are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and serve at the president’s pleasure. Also under current law, the White House Office of Management and Budget vets NASA’s internal spending proposal before it is delivered to Congress as part of the president’s annual budget request for the entire government.

The largely Republican effort is being led by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and bill co-sponsor Frank Wolf (R-Va.). Other co-sponsors of the measure include Rep.  Pete Olson (R-Texas), Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), and Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.).

It looks as though members will try to place the provisions in the next authorization bill. An Obama Administration official has already dismissed the idea, saying it would add an extra level of bureaucracy that NASA doesn’t need in an era of tight budgets. The officials said the changes would do nothing to decouple the space agency from DC politics.

More fundamentally, it’s difficult to imagine that any administration would sign away its authority to oversee space policy in the manner proposed. Not one of the representatives sponsoring this bill, if he were to somehow become President one day,  would agree to such changes if he were sitting in the Oval Office.