Disagreement over Balance: House Science Committee to Mark-Up NASA Authorization Bill

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Publication date: 
29 April 2015
Number: 
57

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will meet tomorrow morning to mark-up a bill reauthorizing NASA for FY 2016 and FY 2017.  While not providing the actual budget for the agency, the legislation would, if enacted, guide NASA’s programs and set funding limits.

“Balance” is likely to be heard many times at this markup.  The press release announcing it was entitled “Committee Plans to Restore Balance to NASA’s Budget,” and quotes Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) as stating about the bill: “It restores much-needed balance to NASA’s budget while complying with funding levels set by current law. It authorizes full funding for the exploration systems that will take us to the Moon and Mars as well as the Commercial Crew program. It provides NASA with a science portfolio that is truly balanced.”

Balance was mentioned frequently at hearings held in March and earlier this month by the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee and the House Subcommittee on Space.  Opening the March 12 Senate hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz (R-TX) criticized the Obama Administration for focusing too much on NASA’s Earth Sciences Division.  He called for a refocusing of the agency’s mission on what he called its core priority of exploring space.  Science, not politics, Cruz said, should drive NASA’s programs, concluding his remarks by telling NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and fellow senators that he looked forward to being an outspoken champion of NASA. 

Bolden and Democratic senators countered that Earth Science is a core mission, with NASA often being the sole federal agency to support critical investigations of the planet.  Bolden remarked that since he became administrator the agency has spent approximately $49 billion on human space flight, as compared to $11 billion on Earth Sciences, calling it “a fair allocation of funds.”  Cruz assured his colleagues that he agreed that the Earth Sciences program was valuable, but said that the requested increase (9.9 percent) for the Division was disproportionate when compared to other components of the NASA budget.  He called for a bipartisan approach to rebalancing the agency’s portfolio. 

Balance was also a theme in House Science Committee Chairman Smith’s opening statement at the April 16 hearing.  While praising progress that NASA has made in some of its programs, Smith criticized the FY 2016 request, declaring:

“Overall, though, there is a lack of balance in the overall science account request. Congressional guidance and the decadal surveys advocate for a balanced portfolio of science activities. Unfortunately, the President’s request does not adhere to that recommendation by the space experts.  One of the most glaring examples is the disproportionate increase in the Earth Science Division that it receives at the expense of other science divisions and human and robotic space exploration. There are 13 other agencies involved in climate change research, but only one that is responsible for space exploration. In the last eight years, the Earth Science Division funding has increased by more than 63 percent.  This year, the Administration requested another increase of $175 million over last year’s levels for a total increase of nearly $2 billion. The administration doesn’t even come close to funding other science divisions at this level.”

At these and earlier congressional NASA hearings this year uniform and bipartisan support was expressed for NASA and its programs.  At the March Senate subcommittee hearing concern was expressed by full committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) about the need to maintain bipartisan support for the agency.  He was particularly critical of the impact of the Budget Control Act and its automatic budget cuts on the ability of NASA to fulfill its mission.

At tomorrow’s markup session of the 129-page bill there will be disagreement about funding balance among NASA’s programs. In a press release issued yesterday by the committee’s Republicans, Smith declared “We must restore balance to NASA’s budget if we want to ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space for the next 50 years. And we must continue to invest in NASA as the only government agency responsible for space exploration.”     

A committee document describing the highlights of the bill states: “The authorization [bill] includes policy provisions that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year by unanimous consent, but await action by the Senate. This authorization preserves the bipartisan agreement on policy provisions and updates it to authorize funding levels for fiscal year (FY)16 and FY17.”  The statement explains: “Authorizes the PBR [President’s Budget Request] top-lines [requests] and returns balance to NASA’s entire portfolio (between science and exploration) as well as within the science portfolio (between earth science and planetary science).”

There will be much discussion about authorization levels for various NASA Science Programs in the bill.  The legislation authorizes $1.5 billion for Planetary Science as compared to the Administration’s request of $1.36 billion.  The bill authorizes $1.45 billion for Earth Sciences; the Administration requested $1.95 billion.  The bill authorizes a total of $2 billion for Astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope and Heliophysics; the total Administration request was $1.98 billion. 

The committee document explains that The Planetary Society, Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership/Citizens for Space Exploration-Texas, and Coalition for Space Exploration have expressed support for the bill. 

Seventeen representatives are sponsors or cosponsors of this bill.  None are Democrats.  All are members of the House Science Committee except one: Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee who will be writing the bill providing actual FY 2016 funding for NASA.