Editorial | Kill This Bill

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Legislation proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would effectively shield selected big-ticket NASA programs from termination without prior congressional approval is bad policy that should be rejected by the Senate, if it gets that far.

The bill, which also would allow contractors on these programs to tap into funds set aside to cover termination liabilities, comes with a positive-sounding bipartisan label, but that only reaffirms the old adage that all politics is local: The legislation’s main sponsor, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), and nearly all of its 16 co-sponsors represent states with major economic interests in the programs it is designed to shield.

These programs are in fact the most expensive in NASA’s portfolio: the international space station; the James Webb Space Telescope; the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle; and the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. The bill, H.R. 3625, was approved by the House Science Committee in December and now awaits a vote by the full House.

Mr. Brooks, whose district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the lead SLS integrator, says funds allocated each year for programs ought to be put to work on development rather than held in reserve to cover the theoretical cost of shutting down a canceled program. It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that Mr. Brooks and others were motivated in part by concerns that NASA headquarters might be using termination reserve requirements to hobble progress on programs that the White House — from which it takes its cues — does not fully support. 

Whether the Obama administration’s barely concealed disdain for the congressionally mandated SLS factored into the calculation of that program’s termination reserves is unclear — NASA maintains that termination reserve levels are generally set and managed by the contractor under a risk-based formula in accordance with federal acquisition rules. According to NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, however, allowing contractors to tap an otherwise idle funding pool makes sense, even if it undermines the logic for setting aside reserves in the first place.

The legislation’s unambiguously onerous provision is the one that bars NASA from canceling any of the specified programs without prior legislative approval. This would remove a powerful incentive for the relevant NASA center and its contractors to control costs on large development programs, something that often requires painful sacrifices in system capability. Such programs have of course long enjoyed a fair degree of political protection — SLS, for one, unquestionably owes its existence to Congress — but NASA has always wielded, at least in theory, the power to ax serial budget busters.

It’s true that SLS and Orion, by virtue of being mandated by law, are already inoculated against cancellation at the White House’s discretion. The space station, meanwhile, is a fully developed system that will continue to operate at least until 2020. Even the James Webb Telescope, which has incurred enormous cost growth and delays, has proved politically resilient, at least up to now. 

But that doesn’t mean these programs, or any others, for that matter, merit yet another layer of congressional protection. If anything, the White House probably should have more rather than less say when it comes to the disposition of multibillion-dollar NASA projects, which should be driven by policy — not the other way around.

The other big problem with the legislation is the precedent that it sets in creating a new class of untouchable programs. This has already been demonstrated: As originally drafted, the legislation covered Orion, SLS and the space station; the James Webb Space Telescope was added via an amendment that was originally proposed by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), whose district effectively surrounds Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s lead center on the project. That being the case, what’s to prevent other pet projects from being added to the congressionally protected list, to the point that just about everything that lands on NASA’s plate, fatally flawed or not, becomes politically sacred?

To a certain extent, the Obama administration invited congressional policy intervention when it unilaterally dismantled the Moon-bound Constellation program — even though it had sound fiscal reasons for doing so — without offering a credible alternative for reinvigorating and advancing NASA’s human spaceflight program. Nonetheless, the result has been a policy stalemate whose only assured outcome is the expenditure of untold billions of taxpayer dollars at a time when politicians are touting deficit reduction as a top priority. 

The passage of H.R. 3625 would, if anything, exacerbate this situation. It should be killed before it comes anywhere near the president’s desk.