Editorial | Debilitating Budget Politics

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In the latest example of how fecklessness and parochialism in Washington are undermining the U.S. civil space program, committees in the House and Senate have drafted 2014 NASA spending bills that are more than $1 billion apart. The yawning gap is largely because the Republican-led House is adhering to self-imposed ceilings for civilian discretionary spending that roughly track with sequestration, while the Democrat-controlled Senate, like the White House, is pretending that sequestration doesn’t exist.

This disjointed view of the budgetary picture, together with its underlying cause — two political parties that cannot agree on the time of day — makes for an exercise in posturing and gamesmanship that borders on the surreal. Meanwhile, NASA, particularly the human spaceflight program, continues to languish in uncertainty and instability.

The House is correct that sequestration — a decade’s worth of indiscriminate budget cuts triggered by the Congress’ failure to agree on a long-term deficit reduction strategy — does exist, even if it didn’t seem to matter when the House drafted its version of the defense appropriations bill. But for all their tough talk about fiscal restraint, House appropriators and authorizers have seen to it that their NASA priorities — specifically the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — are fully funded in their respective NASA bills. Both measures recommend providing less than $17 billion for NASA next year, a paltry sum that would force the agency to dramatically cut back on its Earth science activities. Republicans have long frowned on Earth science, for ideological reasons and because they tend to be clustered around NASA centers focused on other activities. 

The House NASA authorization bill also bars NASA from spending money on the Obama administration’s newest human spaceflight initiative, a mission to capture an asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit for closer inspection by astronauts. House appropriators were more restrained: Their bill directs the agency to do more homework to prove the feasibility and utility of the asteroid redirect mission and denies requested increases associated with the initiative. 

It’s true that NASA has yet to make a compelling case for investing in the asteroid redirect mission. Ironically, however, that mission appears to be one of the few things NASA can afford to do with the hugely expensive SLS and Orion vehicles that both the House and Senate insist on funding.

Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which wrote the authorization bill, have argued that the Moon is a better near-term goal because the required capabilities clearly are on the pathway to what everyone agrees is NASA’s long-term destination: Mars. But just about everyone, including former Martin Marietta President A. Thomas Young — himself no fan of the asteroid retrieval mission — also agrees that NASA can forget about Mars if held to the funding levels proposed in the House.

The Senate, meanwhile, ignores sequestration in its versions of the NASA authorization and appropriations bills, both of which provide more than $18 billion. Neither bill makes hard choices, but both are fairly balanced — SLS, Orion and Earth science are all generously funded. Democrats are generally friendly toward Earth science, and the lead NASA facility for that activity, Goddard Space Flight Center, happens to be located in the home state of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

One of the more interesting twists in the 2013 NASA budget follies was an amendment proposed — but never formally introduced — by another Maryland Democrat, Rep. Donna Edwards, ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee, that would have established a commission to study the closure of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the dividing of its responsibilities among NASA facilities in Texas and Mississippi. As Ms. Edwards was no doubt well aware, the measure stood virtually no chance of passage, in either the House or the Senate. Her primary purpose in proposing it was to underscore the mismatch between NASA’s sprawling infrastructure base and its budgets, especially at the House-proposed level. 

NASA indeed has too many mouths to feed, be they centers or programs, but no Republican or Democrat with a stake in either is about to make the political sacrifice necessary to do anything about it. One might ask Ms. Edwards, for example, how she’d feel about closing Goddard.

Despite all the legislative activity before Congress broke for August recess, there is little hope for passage of a NASA spending bill before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal year 2014. If the recent past is any indication — and assuming Congress and the White House can agree that a federal government shutdown is a terrible idea for everyone — the next fiscal year will at least begin under a continuing resolution that funds federal activities at 2013 levels.  

Either way, NASA will continue down an unstable and — especially if the House budget proposal somehow gets adopted — unsustainable path. Unless and until political sanity is restored in Washington, there’s no reason to expect that to change.