With a continuing resolution in place until mid-January, work on fiscal year 2014 appropriations bills awaits efforts by budget negotiators in the House and Senate to come up with topline budget numbers that can then feed into appropriations efforts, something that may not be complete until December although appropriators are pressing for faster action. And there remains, of course, the threat of another round of sequestration, although sequestration would work differently in 2014, and not necessarily be as severe as in 2013.
That’s of little consolation to one key senator. “Sequestration will slit the throat of NASA,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told Florida Today earlier this week. “It’ll cut the heart out of the manned space program.” Nelson, a member of the Senate’s budget committee, wants to get rid of sequestration, although he doesn’t describe his alternative approach in the article.
In another article in the Houston Chronicle (non-subscriber version here), Nelson laments the perceived descent of NASA into partisan politics, as he has in the recent past. “What is sad to me is that NASA has always been above politics,” he told the Chronicle. “Now it’s gotten to be a partisan issue and that is a sad day for the country.”
The Chronicle, in an editorial Thursday, supported Nelson’s call for moving NASA above partisan politics, claiming that “politics of a more destructive, partisan sort have indeed threatened NASA.” (One curious example it cites is “President Barack Obama’s decision to bypass Johnson Space Center as the location for one of the retired space shuttles,” although a NASA Office of Inspector General report on the shuttle selection process found “no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making.”) It endorses a concept proposed by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), among several other House members. for multi-year appropriations, a ten-year term for a NASA administrator, and other measures that the paper believes will remove partisan influence from NASA. (Legislation enabling those changes has not advanced in the House or the Senate.)
Even if such changes were enacted, it’s not clear how they would eliminate partisan budget battles in a constrained fiscal environment like the one that exists today. Either NASA must become so important, and with universal agreement about what it should be doing, that it rises above such debates; or, it becomes so unimportant that Congress focuses its debates—and funding—on more critical programs.