The outcome was never really in doubt: the House Science Committee approved HR 2687, the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, on a straight party-line vote. All 22 Republican members voted for the legislation, and all but one Democrat voted against it (Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida did not vote.) The vote came after Democrats proposed a series of amendments to change various aspects of the bill, including several to increase authorized funding levels for various parts of the agency, as well as another bid by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to replace the bill with a Democratic-backed version. Nearly all of those amendments were defeated.
“I want to make clear that I don’t object to the bill simply because it is a Republican bill,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee. “This Committee has a long history of bipartisan support for NASA, and Republican Members have in the past been fierce advocates for a robust and ambitious space program for the nation. Yet this NASA Authorization bill breaks with that proud tradition, and I frankly am at a loss to understand why.”
“The NASA Authorization Act offers us the opportunity to set goals and establish priorities for the greatest space program in the world. That is our responsibility—to take the initiative, make decisions and govern,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee. He reiterated previous statements by other Republican members of the committee that the authorization bill should adhere to spending caps, an argument that Democrats have rejected.
A few amendments did get approved, mostly covering relatively minor topics rather than bigger policy issues. Smith introduced, and won passage on a voice vote, a package of amendments that includes a revised Section 215, which in the original version of the bill called for the use of “cost-type” contracts for future rounds of the commercial crew program. That provision had raised the ire of committee vice-chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who also worried the section gave advisory committees like the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) too much power. The revised Section 215 focuses exclusively on ASAP, asking NASA to submit a report on what ASAP advice it intends or doesn’t intend to follow, and why. Other items in that same amendment call for greater use of the ISS for science and technology development, as well as calling for a student content to name NASA’s overall space exploration program and the Space Launch System specifically.
Democrats did win one victory in the amendments: one proposed by Rep. Johnson to remove Section 711 passed on a 20-to-19 vote. That section would have fixed a six-year term for the NASA administrator, and allow the deputy administrator to serve as acting administrator for no more than 45 days. Three Republicans—Rohrabacher, James Sensenbrenner (WI), and Steve Stockman (TX)—joined 17 Democrats in approving the amendment.
Perhaps the most controversial amendment proposed by committee members never made it to a vote. Edwards withdrew her amendment to create a Center Realignment and Closure Commission with an emphasis on studying whether the Marshall Space Flight Center should be closed. After describing her amendment late in the markup, which she said was prompted by the lower funding levels in the overall bill, she said she would be withdrawing it. She denied the amendments were designed to be “deeply personal” to members of the committee, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), whose district includes Marshall, and instead called on House members to take a more bipartisan approach like that in the Senate.
Brooks got the last word on the topic a little later in the markup, saying that Goddard had “swollen” in recent years. “I believe this gentlelady is proposing this amendment in response on perceived attacks on her district, but this is just not true,” he said, referring to cuts in Earth sciences funding in the authorization bill. The Edwards amendment “should have been, and in my judgement would have been, rejected.”