While Congress is back in session this month, few observers expect they will spend much, if any, time on the topic of a new NASA authorization bill. There are too many other issues for members to deal with, from foreign policy to a continuing resolution to keep the government funded; moreover, the differences between the versions of the bill approved over the summer by the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee appear to be too great to be reconciled, even if the full chambers are able to pass their versions. One recently retired Congressional staff member, though, emphasized this week the importance of such legislation to create policy and more sustainable funding for NASA.
“Right now, I think we are at the tipping point,” warned Jeff Bingham, who retired from the Republican staff of the Senate Commerce Committee last month, during a session Thursday at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in San Diego. NASA has been getting squeezed by flat or declining budgets the last several years, he noted, but has continued to try and continue all of its major programs. “We’re at the point, with the kinds of numbers you see particularly on the House side for 2014, I don’t think NASA can play these cards that way very much longer… You’re going to have to cut something. There’s something major that’s going to have to go.”
That’s where authorizing committees and their legislation step in, he argued. “It’s the responsibility of those committee to look at programs in their jurisdiction and say what should NASA be, what should NASA do, how should NASA do it,” he said. That policy should not be set solely by the White House, he added, but done collaboratively with Congress. “To do space right, you need ‘X’ kind of money,” a figure that should come from the authorization process and work its way through both the administration’s budget request and the budget allocations set by House and Senate committees.
The differences in the current House and Senate authorization bills are not evidence of NASA policy becoming more partisan, though, Bingham said, but instead an artifact of the bigger debate between the parties on fiscal issues. “It was actually hard to find areas in the policy substance in the Nelson bill that needed change or improvement,” he said, referring to a review he did of the Senate authorization bill introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). “If we can get past the money issue, then I think you’ll see that apparent partisanship dissolve.”
One area where there is, perhaps, a policy difference between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate is NASA’s new asteroid initiative, highlighted by plans to redirect a small asteroid into lunar orbit. Both the House authorization and appropriations bills block that program from starting, while the Senate’s versions contain no such prohibition. The initiative “has a negative view in the House partly because the House didn’t really, in my view, look at what it was really all about,” Bingham said. “I think they mistook it, or chose to mistake it, as the new announcement of the Obama vision” and thus attacked it.
The White House hasn’t helped matters, though, Bingham added. “Their rollout on projects and activities has been miserable,” he said. “Part of it is that they don’t see the value in interacting with Congress effectively.” Bingham said he’s hopeful the asteroid initiative does survive Congressional debate on the 2014 budget. “I thought it was a good story,” he said, referring to a panel presentation on the effort by NASA officials at the conference the previous day. “I hope it can, but I don’t know.”
As for an authorization bill, Bingham is skeptical that a bill will pass, despite his earlier discussion of its importance. “What’s most likely is that we won’t have any action taken on NASA programs and policy,” he said. The policy provisions of the 2010 authorization act, he reminded the audience, remain in place even after the end of this fiscal year. “There’s a fallback position that nothing new this year is better than anything new that we have a hard time passing.”