Another aspect of the election outcome is a new focus on budgets and spending. A major concern is the new Republican leadership would seek to make sharp cuts in spending across the board, including for NASA. Back in September the House GOP leadership proposed rolling back spending to FY2008 levels in its “Pledge to America”, which would trim NASA’s budget from the $19 billion proposed for FY2011 by nearly $2 billion. Such cuts would put additional stresses on the budget that some believe is already to small to carry out everything NASA is tasked to do in the new authorization bill on its current schedule.
Can NASA escape those cuts, if they are in fact pushed through Congress? In an Florida Today editorial Thursday, the paper made a plea to spare the agency. Budget cuts “should be done responsibly and not at the expense of investments that advance America’s leadership in science and technology,” they argue. “That’s precisely what NASA is all about and why possible GOP-led cuts to its budget would be ruinous.” The paper made a particular request to Rep.-elect Sandy Adams (R-FL), who defeated Democrat Suzanne Kosmas to represent the district that includes KSC, and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-FL), to protect NASA’s budget.
In Huntsville, officials are hopeful that Republicans will spare NASA. “Republicans have already taken on the president’s space policy and beat him,” local attorney Mark McDaniel, claimed in comments to the Huntsville Times. “The space policy we have now is a Republican-driven policy.” (That’s an odd claim, since the policy passed by Congress started in the Senate with strong cooperation among both Republican and Democratic members.) That, McDaniel argues, will keep NASA out of the “budget-cutting bulls-eye”.
Others are more skeptical. “A key question is whether the new Congress will view NASA as an investment in the nation’s future or a drain on the economy,” Bill Adkins, principal at the Center for Space Strategic Studies, told Space News. “Support for most NASA programs is pretty strong, but that strength has not been tested in the kind of environment we seem to be heading into.” Some budget cuts, he added, could actually be useful, as they “may actually provide clarity to the choices the agency faces and hasten the process of focusing on solutions.” Provided, of course, that the cuts don’t go too far.
Marcia Smith, in a commentary on SpacePolicyOnline.com, concludes that budget cuts of some kind for the space agency are inevitable. “If Barack Obama wants to get reelected two years from now, he will have to join the bandwagon to cut federal spending,” she argues. The administration’s proposal to increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion over five years “was always just a proposal and it is difficult to believe that it can survive the current economic and political climate.”
Of course, it was clear for some time that the next Congress would be more fiscally conservative than the current one, given the concerns about trillion-dollar budget deficits, and the administration was planning accordingly. Recall that back in June, a joint memo by then-OMB director Peter Orszag and then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked federal agencies to volunteer “lowest impact” programs to be cut to obtain a five-percent overall budget cut in the FY2012 budget submissions. The outcome of the election makes it only more likely that there will be budget cuts of some kind.
However, what form those cuts will take, including their magnitude and whether NASA will be either protected or particularly victimized by them remains unclear. While Republicans have control of the House now, Democrats remain in charge of the Senate, with the chair and ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), easily winning reelection. That may make it more difficult for House Republicans to get sharp budget cuts through; however, Democrats eager to retain their now narrower majority in the Senate may be willing to go along with some cuts. Also, how those cuts will affect specific NASA programs remains to be seen: outgoing House Science Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) told Florida Today that it would be “hard to move forward with this new commercial track” should NASA spending be reduced.
One near-term milestone for the agency, and federal spending in general, is what Congress does with the FY2011 appropriations bills still not passed when it returns in mid-November for a lame duck session. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) told Florida Today that it’s “hard to see how we would move through new spending package” during the session. That suggests that at least some parts of the government may continue under continuing resolution funding into 2011, when Republicans then take over and could make an initial, early effort to trim federal spending.