Impasse: House Science Committee Approves NASA Reauthorization Bill on Party Line Vote

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Publication date: 
19 July 2013

“We are just never going to agree on this,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) midway through an hours-long committee markup yesterday of the NASA Authorization Act of 2013.  Grayson’s comment reflected the deep-seated division between the Republican and Democratic members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee about the approach that should be taken to funding NASA, and in a larger sense, all federal agencies in coming years.

Yesterday’s markup session of this bill to set policy and funding direction for the space agency for FY 2014 and FY 2015 started shortly before noon, and lasted until 5:30 PM, with the committee considering 35 amendments to the bill.  In general, the deliberations were cordial, but decisions involving roll call votes were almost always along party lines. 

Approximately $1.3 billion dollars separate the Democratic and Republican members of this committee.  Many of the amendments the Democrats offered would have restored funding for various programs to the level of the Obama Administration’s request.  That request was based on a higher overall level of total spending for FY 2014 than that subsequently supported by House Republicans.  The budget plan House Republicans adopted, following the Budget Control Act (including sequestration), was used to formulate an overall spending limit for NASA that committee Democrats contended was too low for the agency.  

The approach both sides took yesterday, and the eventual outcome, were largely predetermined.  Reflecting the House’s composition, the Science Committee has 22 Republicans and 18 Democrats and on key votes the tallies reflected this composition.  The vote to approve this bill was 22 Republican yes votes with the 17 Democrats all voting no.  That split was approximately the same on an 80-page amendment that Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) offered that would have replaced all of the Republican bill language with a new bill encompassing higher spending levels and important policy changes for various NASA programs.  Edwards is the Ranking Member on the Space Subcommittee.  With one exception, involving a new approach in the bill to the future selection and term of the NASA administrator that was struck, the Republicans had the votes to prevail, and they did.

Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Edwards argued that the bill should represent the committee’s funding recommendations about what NASA needs to accomplish its broad range of missions in coming years.  Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) countered the bill should reflect the House budget plan, and that reporting a bill to the House floor disregarding this plan would doom its passage in both the House and Senate.  “We must do the best with the hand we’ve been dealt” said Palazzo.  Edwards countered “The Majority knows that these funding levels are really a nonstarter and I think they set NASA on an unfortunate path to failure.”

The Democrats’ amendments dealt with both funding and policy, including space technology, Earth Science, Heliophysics, Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, cross-agency support, Inspector General funding, STEM programs, environmental compliance, science funding, human exploration, Aerospace Advisory Council, contract termination, and indemnification, all of which were rejected.  The committee accepted amendments regarding safety requirements for commercial providers, public/private partnerships, international cooperation, the Kennedy Space Center, International Space Station, informal science education, the space grant program, contractor crimes, and a statement that science remains an agency priority.   None of the accepted amendments fundamentally altered the Republican bill’s approach to funding or policy for the agency.  Amendments offered by Johnson to reduce the bill’s authorization to only one year, and another to provide the NASA administrator with greater flexibility to shift program funding were also defeated on party line votes.

The session ended with only minor changes having been made to the bill.  After its passage, Johnson commented “we clearly see it differently, but that’s democracy.”

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