After failing to come to an agreement on an amendment during a markup session last week, the House Science Committee took less than ten minutes Wednesday afternoon to approve an amended bill that would block NASA from reserving funds for termination liability for several key programs and also prevent the agency from unilaterally canceling those programs.
After brief statements, the committee approved on voice votes an amendment to HR 3625, then the bill itself. The bill originally prevented NASA from reserving funds for termination liability costs for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and International Space Station (ISS), while preventing NASA from terminating prime contracts for those programs without the approval of Congress. The amendment includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the programs covered by the bill, and makes a number of wording changes to clarify what a “prime contract” is, and to explicitly state that termination liability funds that have been reserved to date for the covered programs “shall be promptly used to make maximum progress in meeting the established goals and milestones of the covered program.”
Proponents of the bill—and there were no opponents of it who spoke during the markup—emphasized that the bill would free up money to be spent on making progress on those programs. “HR 3625 helps accelerate progress on these vital space programs by allowing these programs to spend dollars that have already been appropriated on actual work, rather than withholding these funds on the unlikely chance of program termination,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), the bill’s sponsor, said at the markup.
Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington, a staffer for another member of Congress expressed support for the bill. “Congress has appropriated, through a very difficult process in the House and Senate, a certain amount of money for a program. The agency should not withhold that money ‘just in case,’” said Mark Dawson, legislative director for Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “They should proceed with the work on the program.” He said the way termination liability had been applied by NASA was “a real problem” for the SLS program in particular, and that Rep. Aderholt supported the bill.
NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot, speaking a little later at the COMSTAC meeting, said that NASA’s decision to withhold funds for those programs for termination liability was based on legal and procurement guidance it received, but appeared to welcome the legislation. “We’ll see if we get relief on that,” he said.
Speaking a short time later, though, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver subtly criticized the bill’s provision prohibiting NASA from canceling the programs covered by the bill. “In my view, we should not be debating whether or not we should have the ability to terminate a program that is not working in a cost-plus environment,” she said. “That should not be debated. That’s something that we recognize is the way, when your government is funding a program, you have to protect against slips in development.”