The beginning of a new year is a time for change: at the very least, putting up those 2014 calendars and tossing the 2013 versions into the recycle bin. However, as 2014 begins, it will look at least initially a lot like 2013 for space policy, as Congress deals with some unfinished business regarding spending and other legislation.
The biggest near-term priority for Congress when it returns next week will be fiscal year 2014 appropriations. While the budget deal reached last month set overall spending levels for 2014 and 2015, avoiding sequestration in the process, it’s still up to House and Senate appropriators to come up with a bill or bills to appropriate that money before the continuing resolution (CR) funding the government expires on January 15. POLITICO reported earlier this week that appropriators have been working on a single omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to be finalized next week.
Details about the bill aren’t included in that report, although it does state that the section covering commerce, justice, and science—including NASA and NOAA—is among those “largely finalized.” For NASA, that likely means falling somewhere between the $16.6 billion House appropriators approved and the $18 billion from their Senate counterparts.
Although many space advocates argue that policy should drive the budget, it’s likely the opposite will remain true. The House appropriations bill, for example, blocks any spending on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, while the Senate is silent on it. The two bills also have significant differences in the amount available for Commercial Crew, which could drive decisions later in 2014 on how many companies NASA can support in the next phase of the program when it awards contract(s) this summer.
Besides appropriations, there is space-related legislation awaiting action. The year 2013 ended without enactment of a bill to extend the commercial launch indemnification regime. In mid-December the Senate passed an amended version of a bill the House passed in early December, changing the House’s one-year extension to a three-year one. However, the House had adjourned for the year by the time the Senate took action. Launch licenses currently in place, or applications submitted by December 31, still have indemnification protection, but any new applications would not be included in the regime—at least until the House and Senate get around resolving their differences.
Also awaiting the House is legislation approved by the House Science Committee last month to stop NASA from withholding funds for termination liability for several key agency programs. The bill would also effectively make it impossible to cancel those programs—the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, International Space Station, and James Webb Space Telescope—unless Congress passes legislation to do so. The bill’s future, though, is uncertain, even if it passes the House: it’s unlikely the administration would support a bill that would, in essence, take control over the future of several key programs out of its hands.
And, if members are feeling really ambitious, they might take up the NASA authorization bills they started working on in 2013. The Senate Commerce Committee passed its version in late July on a party-line vote, after the House Science Committee approved its quite different version earlier in the month, also along party lines. Neither bill has made progress since then, and with the sharp differences in opinion both in authorized spending levels and policy, the bills might remain in legislative limbo indefinitely.