Congress, NASA

House NASA authorization could offer some fireworks

The House Science Committee is holding its markup of a NASA authorization bill this morning (the meeting has been delayed two hours to 11:15 am EDT.) The bill will, presumably, be approved by the full committee, although it may be on a party-line vote as was the case in last week’s subcommittee markup.

However, there may be a little excitement in today’s markup. Space News reported late yesterday that Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) will introduce an amendment that would create a commission to study whether to close NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The “Center Realignment and Closure Commission” would look at consolidating rocket development and test activities currently conducted at Marshall and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, as well as relocating all Marshall activities to either Stennis or the Johnson Space Center. It’s unclear what prompted Edwards, the ranking member of the space subcommittee, to consider such an amendment; last week, when she introduced an alternative version of an authorization bill in the subcommittee, she courted Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), whose district includes Marshall, by highlighting the increased authorized spending levels for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in her version of the bill.

While Edwards’s amendment may be a long shot to be approved by the committee, something that may have greater odds of passage is a change to section 215 of the authorization act, which calls for the use of “cost-type” contracts for future phases of NASA’s commercial crew program. Full committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) criticized that provision in the subcommittee’s markup last week and said he understood his concerns would be addressed before the full committee takes up the bill. Asked about the status of those efforts yesterday at the Future Space 2013 conference in Washington, Rohrabacher instead summarized his objections to that provision without providing an update on any efforts within the committee to address his issues with it.

28 comments to House NASA authorization could offer some fireworks

  • Hiram

    I’ve never been all that impressed with Eddie Bernice Johnson as a force for NASA authorization, but her opening statement at the full cmte markup today was very strong, and her displeasure with an Auth committee being unjustifiably bound by sequestration rules and NASA being punished for spending decisions outside the jurisdiction of the committee were well expressed. Short statement, but quite powerful.

    Mr. Smith feels that these hard funding decisions shouldn’t be “left to others”, but the congressional responsibility about funding decisions is, in fact, the designated purview of the Appropriators. A sequestration-limited 3-year authorization bill basically leaves the agency guidance-handicapped if sequestration is repealed before FY17, which is likely.

    One wonders why the bill couldn’t authorize what NASA needs, and yet provide an authorization caveat on what should be given up if sequestration is maintained. That would provide real guidance.

    • Hiram

      Correction — it’s a 2-year authorization, rather than the usual 3.

      Chairman Smith later addressed the likelihood of sequestration repeal, and just said that, if it happens, we’ll redo the authorization. So I guess NASA and CJS get to twiddle their thumbs while authorizing guidance is redone. Weird. Again, some if-this-then-that would be very helpful with regard to fiscal constraints.

      • Jimmy

        Rep. Smith is doing an exemplary job of adhering to the Party line, literally. He has to, I guess. His Congressional district in TX, though it touches on San Antonio, is rural and very conservative. This is a Tea Party state and he has to be on the look-out for a Primary challenge.

        I personally think Rep. Johnson has lost her way. She has been butting heads with Chairman Smith, and for what? Now she proposes to close Marshall? That won’t help her efforts to work with Rep. Brooks later. And Sen. Shelby, the RM of the full Senate Approps Committee, and also the RM of the Approps CJS Subcommittee, must be having a good laugh at that.

  • amightywind

    Good luck with that Donna Edwards. I think she is playing offense to mask a weak defense. If any NASA center is expendable it is Goddard. I look forward to the retaliatory from our friends in the south..

    • mt noise

      As long as Barbara Mikulski is a senator Goddard is quite safe.

      • Hiram

        As long as NASA does science, Goddard is quite safe. In fact, NASA science has a strategic plan that is widely admired and agreed upon, and has regular spectacular successes. Unlike NASA human space flight. JSC and MSFC priorities bounce around every year or two and there is a lot of confusion about what the long range goals of human space flight really are.

        But the question of why Edwards went after MSFC is really a curious one. Not clear what she has to gain by doing that.

    • DCSCA

      “If any NASA center is expendable it is Goddard. I look forward to the retaliatory from our friends in the south…” mused Windy.

      Goddard is safe, Windy. Babs keeps the bread buttered and its proximity to DC is a plus. Edwards is tilting at windmills. MSFC, its test stands and associated development facilities are safe. National asserts like that aren’t going to be moved out of the south to northerb climates like Ohio. And Texas has its share od NASA assets already. Frankly, the multiplicity of facilities in California make for easier targets and long overdue for consolidation.

    • James

      Ms Edwards is preparing to fill Babs role as Goddards protector

  • MECO


    You did not mention that the House bill includes an escalation clause that provides authorization for additional funding, if a deal is made on changing sequestration. This is an important feature of the bill. Given the uncertainty in funding across all federal programs, this approach in the House bill is a responsible approach. It provides a clear approach that’s consistent with current law (sequestration), while setting priorities should additional funding become available. One of the primary purposes of an authorization bill is to set priorities, including funding levels. It shouldn’t be “left to others.” Authorization funding levels are ceilings for Approps to work within. Approps’ primary purpose is to provide the funding, not set policy. In contrast, the Democrats proposed alternative ignores fiscal reality and ignores the budget resolution many of them voted for, which I don’t think is responsible at all. The argument that the Budget Resolution doesn’t bind authorizations is a red herring. The alternative proposal, by setting funding levels very high and ignoring sequestration, only ensures that such a bill is functionally irrelevant as a factor in the legislative and appropriations process.

    Edwards et al could have drafted a bill that provided the $18B they wanted, and then included a de-escalation clause that identified what would be cut if the funding was less, but they didn’t offer that approach. Why not? Even if they did, I have my doubts that they would be able to reach agreement within their own party on priorities for what to cut in the de-escalation clause.

    This is an extremely difficult and uncertain environment to set long-term policy and priorities, but I think the House bill and its counterpart in Approps are the most realistic approach laid on the table so far.

    • Hiram

      Can you give a reference to the “escalation” clause in the draft bill, please? I must have missed that. That “clause” may well have been something like “If we get more money, we’ll rethink”, but it certainly doesn’t provide any actionable guidance for the agency.

      “One of the primary purposes of an authorization bill is to set priorities, including funding levels.”

      Let’s face it. The funding levels set by Authorization bills are rarely taken seriously by the appropriators. So no, that’s not right, though they can pretend they’re setting funding levels and go through the motions. They’d like to believe they aren’t “leaving it to others”, but in practice, that’s exactly what happens.

      That the minority committee members might have voted for the budget resolution is irrelevant. They did so assuming that NASA was important enough that it could be largely protected. They did so assuming that NASA was actually pretty special. The majority evidently doesn’t feel that way. At least that’s the way it looks.

      But I agree, the minority could have offered a bill that provided guidance as long as sequestration was in order.

      The purpose of authorization is to do a sanity check on the projects that NASA wants to do, in the context of several fiscal years. That sanity check is about project details, whether the project meets national needs, and whether it is credibly affordable. Appropriations or the Budget committee has far, far better insight about whether projects are affordable in detail, certainly at the 5% level we’re talking about here, than the Authorizers.

      • MECO

        See sec 103 of the bill for the escalation clause.
        It says basically if sequestration is repealed/replaced add money for ISS, SLS, Orion, and Commercial Crew…perhaps not everyone’s picks for priorities, but that’s the mechanism. Dems could have done something similar, but as a de-escalation, but didn’t.
        On the purpose of authorization bills, I still disagree with you, strongly. They are *supposed* to set priorities and set funding ceilings. That is really what they are for. Now, you are correct it hasn’t worked out that way in practice for many years and it’s true that appropriations committees usually ignore them, but that’s b/c they have typically been unrealtistic bills, which is precisely what the Republicans are trying to fix. Here’re the problems with recent bills: 1) they usually propose funding far in excess of what approps can actually do, so the “ceiling” in the auth bill becomes irrelevant (which is exactly why the Dem bill is not worth doing), and 2) timing. authorizations usually are not done before approps gets down to work, so they move out without auth guidance (this is less of a problem in a multi-year authorization bill). In fact, you can look back on a variety of NASA issues and approps has said they want to defer to the authorizers on policy, such as when the VSE was rolled out. Approps didn’t want to put money in it, unless the auth committees were onboard.
        One model to look at is how the defense authorization and appropriations processes work. The defense Authorizers and Approps committees work independently and sometimes disagree on major issues, and in those cases the authorization does really mean something. Take a look at the numbers in those bills. You don’t see Authorizers promoting hugely different numbers overall for DoD than what’s on Approps. Authorizers know that they need to be realistic to be relevant. The big disconnect on NASA issues has tended to be authorizers who write bills detached from reality.

        • Jimmy


          I would agree with you that before 2010 appropriators had little regard for authorizations. This was especially true in the House when Rep. Rohrabacher ran House Science. The term Rep. Lewis’ people used for him was, “Nuts”.

          But in 2010, thanks to Sen. KBH and the Great Space Fight, appropriators and authorizers tried to work together. And it worked pretty well between 2010 and the end of 2012.

          The budget nonsense of sequestration and trying to keep adherence to the Ryan budget has muddied the water in the House. As for the Senate, it will depend upon how much Sen. Nelson goes off the reservation on Orion, SLS, and Commercial Crew. Too far and Sen. Shelby, and by extension Sen. Mikuslki, will ignore Nelson’s bill.

          Honestly, I just don’t see how the reconciled NASA budet can get approval by both chambers. To win one is get a budget that is anathema to the other. And a CR would be a convenient way for NASA funding to stay level while House GOP members can talk about how they held the line on statist Senate spending. I would like your thoughts on that.

        • Hiram

          “It says basically if sequestration is repealed/replaced add money for ISS, SLS, Orion, and Commercial Crew”

          And it does so without any clear justification. That’s just laziness. It’s authorization by default.

          “One model to look at is how the defense authorization and appropriations processes work.”

          I’m not sure that’s an appropriate model. Defense is an all-encompassing activity, and what one branch does strongly impacts what is needed from the other branches. That’s why Approps and Auth need to work closely. You need some coordination in the whole investment. Nothing could be further than the truth for NASA. If human space flight disappeared off the face of the Earth, it wouldn’t matter a whit to science, and vice versa.

          That Approps deferred to the Authorizers on policy with regard to Constellation on policy is exactly right. Because Constellation required some level of detailed inspection that Approps was simply not set up to give it. But I don’t think Approps was deferring budgeting of Constellation to the authorizers.

  • josh

    the right thing to do would be to stick with the high-performing saa approach and to close down non-performing msfc. ofc this is the us congress so it’s pretty likely they’ll do exactly the opposite. can’t wait for the day that spacex makes all of nasa hsf obsolete.

    • MattW

      You’re not helping your cause.

    • DCSCA

      “…can’t wait for the day that spacex makes all of nasa hsf obsolete” gushes josh

      Hmmmm. You’ll be waiting a long, long time, fella. NASA has over half a century of HSF experience. Space X has zero. They have flown nobody. America has NASA. Newspace has nada.

      • Hiram

        SpaceX has been flying human-rated launch vehicles while NASA has not. That’s what the “gap” is, that NASA has. It’s nada. NASA gets to point to accomplishments in history books, but it can’t point to hardware that is actually now flying. EM-2 gets NASA back flying people in 2019, we’re told, but NASA’s “half a century of HSF experience” frankly doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in that date. EM-2 needs a launcher that they haven’t even started cutting metal for, and half a century of human space flight experience means squat for that.

        Now SpaceX certainly won’t make NASA human space flight obsolete, as SpaceX won’t provide jobs in key congressional districts. That is, of course, what NASA human spaceflight is for.

  • Maybe SapceX could get better funding out of Congress if they offered their product through Roscosmos? Russians need a new launch vehicle, and Putin could pull a billion out of his hat if he wanted to (although he’d probably insist upon himself flying on an early flight).

    • DCSCA

      “Maybe SpaceX could get better funding out of Congress…” mused SF

      Space X could get better funding out of the private sector. Even Disney maanged to get its $225 million flop, ‘The Lone Ranger’ financed in the private sector. That’s the free market at work, fella. When cities like Detroit file for bankruptcy while the stock market soars, government clearly has other priorities–like saving our cities before financing profiteers playing at being rocketeers. The palce for Space X to get financing is the private capital markets– not the U.S. Treasury.

  • Aberwys

    Such a blatant attack of MSFC by a former GSFC-er (Ms. Edwards) is political folly. Anyone know the real driver for raising shutting down MSFC?

    • MattW

      She compared the costs against the benefits and performed her duty as ranking member of the authorizing committee? I know, too much to expect from a member of Congress.

      • Aberwys

        Not too much to expect from a member of Congress to do their job, it’s simply that there is always a good answer to “Why this? Why now?” Most folks of her ilk think very carefully about releasing such an attack.

        I agree with James’ earlier comment. Someone has to start to step up and be vocal, as Babs will eventually retire.

    • Coastal Ron

      Aberwys said:

      Such a blatant attack of MSFC by a former GSFC-er (Ms. Edwards) is political folly.

      That may be, but it has people talking about why (or why not) the idea has any validity.

      Anyone know the real driver for raising shutting down MSFC?

      That would be interesting to know, but I’m not sure we ever will. Or at least the whole story.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Anyone know the real driver for raising shutting down MSFC?”

      Consolidation of rocket testing facilities. MSFC and SSC overlap in this function.

  • Guest

    Anyone know the real driver for raising shutting down MSFC?

    That’s easy, the SLS. What is truly funny is that Ms. Edwards still thinks the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule (Constellation in everything but name) is the greatest thing since Mom’s apple pie. She is for it and against it! Beat that.

  • Will the “Center Realignment and Closure Commission” be setup only after the “Base Utility and Technology Trust” has been created?

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