Party Line Vote: House Science Committee Approves NASA Authorization Bill

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Publication date: 
30 April 2015

Today’s markup of the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 by the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee lasted about two and one-half hours, including a recess for voting on the House floor and lunch.  When it was done committee members voted strictly along party lines to approve the bill, H.R. 2039.

While less expansive than the America COMPETES bill that the committee passed last week, also by a party line vote, today’s session made clear the rapidly widening division between the two parties.  Differences this time between committee members were minimal about the bill’s policy provisions, centering instead on the authorized funding level for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division. 

“There is nothing bipartisan about what is happening today,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the committee’s Subcommittee on Space.   Clearly angry, Edwards criticized the lack of a single subcommittee hearing on the bill and the significant reduction it contained to the FY 2016 authorization level for Earth Sciences. “I am so disappointed and appalled today,” she said, remarking that the funding level for Earth Sciences would “devastate” the program and lead to the loss of many skilled jobs.  “I call it a travesty,” Edwards said, later adding “Shame, shame, shame on us.”

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and the bill’s lead sponsor, Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) disagreed.  In opening the hearing, Smith said:

“The Authorization levels for FY16 and FY17 included in this bill provide NASA with the resources necessary to remain a leader in space exploration in a time of tight budget realities.Unlike the President’s budget request, this NASA Authorization complies with the Budget Control Act. The bill allows for additional funding support only if it is budget neutral and corresponding off-sets are identified.  The bill funds NASA at its top-line request of $18.5 billion for FY16 and $18.8 billion for FY17, while including necessary additional resources for national priorities such as the Space Launch System and Orion.  It also establishes a balance between the exploration and science accounts by funding both equally at $4.95 billion. The bill balances funding across all of the Science Divisions. It increases funding for the James Webb Space Telescope to enable it to stay on track. And it increases funding for Astrophysics and Heliophysics to study our universe and our sun.”

Palazzo commented “This bill keeps the bipartisan agreement with the [Democratic] minority on policy provisions. This bill is also fiscally responsible. The bill balances exploration and science, and restores true balance to the science division. Unlike the president’s budget request, it provides for increased funding for NASA while ensuring those increases are paid for.”

As has been true at other hearings, members disputed the extent to which the committee had to adhere to the Budget Control Act.  Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) argued the law only sets total nondefense discretionary spending caps for FY 2016 and 2017, and not for individual departments or agencies.  Republicans disagreed, saying it was necessary for authorizing committees to act so resulting legislation does not exceed the spending cap. 

But the real dispute at today’s hearing was about how much money NASA’s Earth Sciences Division should be authorized to receive.  Actual funding will be provided by the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who notably is a cosponsor of H.R. 2039.  Much of Johnson’s opening comments about the bill were devoted to the Earth Sciences budget, stating that the:

“Majority’s bill cuts earth science by over $320 million. Earth science, of course, includes climate science. It should come as no surprise that the [Republican] Majority wants to cut funding for a field of science where they are scared of the answers the scientists give.  Remember, just last week, every single Republican Member of this Committee voted against the notion that climate change might be caused by people.  In January, NASA announced that 2014 was likely the warmest year since 1880. NASA also noted that 9 of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2000. Of course, these scientific findings did not sit well with my Republican colleagues who have been consistently insisting of late that global warming is over. Instead of admitting that they might be wrong, the Majority is doing the next best thing: cutting the budget of the scientists who keep making them look so foolish. This is an embarrassment, and does a profound disservice to the once-proud reputation of this Committee.”

The committee voted on four amendments that were all sponsored by Democrats.  Johnson and Edwards offered two of them that would have restored funding for Earth Sciences.  Both failed on strictly party-line votes.

Republicans and Democrats offered letters of support and opposition to H.R. 2039.  Among those commenting was the American Astronomical Society, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics.
The bill now moves to the House floor.