House Science Committee Passes NASA Authorization Bill

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Publication date: 
30 July 2010

The Obama Administration’s new space exploration policy is on track.  Last week the House Science and Technology Committee approved its version of a NASA authorization bill.  The bill largely parallels a bill  passed by a Senate committee earlier this month.  Also moving this month was the Senate’s FY 2011 NASA appropriations bill that would provide the necessary funding to implement the Administration’s policy.  A House committee’s version  of the appropriations bill provided the full exploration request, but would not make it available for expenditure until a new authorization bill is enacted.

On Wednesday the Science Committee reported its bill to the full House.  This latest development  is yet another indication of how far the Administration’s exploration policy has progressed since NASA sent its FY 2011 budget request to Congress on February 1.  This request included the  Administration’s proposal to cancel the Constellation Program and to rely instead on commercial transportation services to the space station.  Commenting on that proposal Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) then said “the space agency’s budget request represents a radical departure from the bipartisan consensus achieved by Congress in successive authorizations over the past five years.” The committee’s Ranking Republican Ralph Hall (R-TX) was more critical, declaring “I am alarmed that this administration is planning to reject all that we have accomplished and instead rely on a risky new initiative to buy commercial crew services from companies that, in some cases, have little-to-no track record developing space systems.”

Initial hearings on this proposal did not go well, with senators and representatives from both parties voicing serious reservations and at times outright hostility to the new policy.  President Obama’s speech  at the Kennedy Space Center redefined his proposal, giving Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) the opportunity to work with his colleagues on further modifications.  The first public indication of a compromise was a mid-June letter from Nelson to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA’s budget, in which he described the draft of an authorization bill that “will prove consistent with several of the President's priorities.”

The Science Committee markup of the 17,000 word bill last week took a different course than did the Senate markup of its companion bill.  The Senate committee considered its version of this bill at the same time as two other bills and a Coast Guard nomination, and was over in less than 40 minutes.  That July 15 markup consisted mostly of various senators expressing their support for the bill, and expressions of thanks to the committee staff and other members for achieving a bipartisan consensus on the legislation.  The bill passed by a voice vote without dissent.

In contrast, last week’s Science Committee markup took six hours (including breaks for voting on the House floor), and began with thirty amendments to be considered.  Gordon spoke of the “hard choices” the committee members made in the formulation of the bill, adding  “I . . . want to ensure that NASA’s missions are matched to available resources. As a result, some of the ‘nice-to-haves’ have had to be deferred, and worthy activities have been funded at lower levels than some of us would like. Nevertheless, I think the legislation before us sets a clear, sustainable, and executable path for NASA, especially in the area of human space flight.”  Ranking Member Hall expressed his support for the bill, commenting that “Given the budget constraints as well as the turmoil surrounding the direction of our human space flight program, it is vitally important that this good piece of legislation be enacted as soon as possible. I support this bill and I urge all Members to lend their support as well. It’s important we get this legislation through Congress and to the President.”  The press release issued by the committee’s Republican Caucus took a more critical approach on the relationship between the Administration’s proposal and the committee’s bill, calling the voice vote approving the legislation “a bipartisan repudiation of Obama’s plan for human spaceflight.”

Gordon found fault with previous efforts, saying “in all candor” the Constellation Program would have resulted in a “balloon mortgage,” something which he said the Administration’s proposal and the Senate bill would also do.  It is important to get the numbers right, he said, reminding his colleagues that their “passion” for space is not shared by all Members of Congress.

The committee’s consideration of the thirty amendments resulted in, as expected, different outcomes.  Several amendments were withdrawn.  Members of the same party disagreed during votes on other amendments.  The wording of what was a controversial amendment was modified, resulting in it being adopted by voice vote.  A Republican amendment to reduce the bill’s authorization period from five to three years was supported by Gordon and approved by a voice vote.

During the markup Gordon expressed hope that the bill would be considered by the House this week in preparation for a future conference with the Senate to resolve differences between the two bills.  The House is leaving Washington later today, and will not return until mid-September.  The Senate will start on its summer recess at the end of the next week.

After six hours the last of the amendments had been considered, and Gordon and Hall moved to pass H.R. 5781 as amended and to report it to the full House.  Both motions were approved by voice votes.  In concluding the hearing, Gordon praised his colleagues and committee staff on a “job well done.”  “This is not a perfect bill,” he said, adding “We do not have the perfect amount of money.”