As expected, the House of Representatives approved Wednesday HR 6586, legislation to extend the commercial launch indemnification system by two years, to the end of 2014. The legislation, considered under suspension of the rules, passed by a voice vote after a brief debate, during which no one rose in opposition to the bill. Among those speaking in favor of the bill were the primary sponsor, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), current House Science Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), and two of the members seeking to succeed him, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX). (Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the third candidate for the chairmanship, did not speak.)
While those speakers discussed the need for indemnification to continue, another speaker suggested the current system should be revised over the next two years. “Congress has not updated the program since its inception in 1988. This has resulted in an increased liability exposure for the US taxpayer, and that exposure grows every year,” said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL). He was referring to the provision that adjusts the original $1.5-billion cap on government liabilities at the rate of inflation; it’s now approximately $2.7 billion. “I am concerned that taxpayer liability is exposure is growing at the same time the industry and its associated insurance market is maturing.” Costello said he didn’t oppose the bill, but hopes that issue will be addressed before the latest extension expires in 2014.
Costello won’t be around to work on the issue he identified: he is retiring this year. However, in a statement issued after the House passed the legislation, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member of the House Science Committee, did mention the need to perhaps modify the indemnification system in the next Congress. “There are important issues that need to be considered as we move forward, relative to the future character of the liability regime,” she said, without specifying them. “We don’t really have time to address these issues in what remains of this Congress, but I hope we’ll give them thoughtful and comprehensive attention before the next extension is necessary in 2014.”