Editorial | Better Late than Never

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Just a few months after one of its perpetually feuding factions orchestrated the closure of large parts of the civilian U.S. government, including NASA, Congress took a small step toward redemption by passing an omnibus appropriations bill that gives federal agencies a basic necessity they’ve been denied for way too long: budgetary guidance.

The partial shutdown, which began Oct. 1 and lasted nearly three weeks, was the culmination of an embarrassing run of futility that saw lawmakers, seemingly unable to pass targeted appropriations bills, settle for continuing resolutions that fund federal activities at prior-year levels. That, coupled with the indiscriminate budget cuts known as sequestration, made it all but impossible for federal agencies like NASA and the Pentagon to properly allocate resources or formulate, let alone execute, sound space program plans. 

But in mid-January, Congress unveiled, and then quickly passed, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, which provides detailed funding allocations for all federal activities for the remaining eight-and-a-half months of the fiscal year. Signed by President Barack Obama Jan. 17, the law also offers a measure of relief from sequestration, which took effect last March as a result of Congress’ inability to agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan.

While the grand bargain to rein in federal spending remains elusive, the passage of an actual budget for 2014 shows that even the most bitterly divided Congress can get things done when lawmakers resolve to place governance ahead of politics. 

NASA, which was hit hard by sequestration and the partial government shutdown, fared reasonably well in the bill, garnering a $700 million increase over last year, even if the $17.6 million top-line appropriation was a bit less than the president requested. NASA’s oft-shortchanged effort to nurture commercial crew transportation services to and from the international space station received $696 million, its biggest annual appropriation yet. With the Commercial Crew Program entering its home stretch, the funding increase was critical, even if the total falls short of the president’s $821 million request. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s main civilian weather satellite programs were fully funded in the bill, suggesting that repeated warnings of possible coverage lapses from these vital systems are getting through to lawmakers. The bad news is a proposed adjunct satellite dubbed Free Flyer-1 was not funded, leaving NOAA without a platform to carry important sensors that cannot fit on its operational polar-orbiting satellites. 

For Department of Defense space programs, the bill was a mixed bag. On one hand, all of the Pentagon’s major unclassified satellite and rocket programs were allotted less money — in some cases substantially less — than the president requested, and most are down from 2013 levels. In an unusual twist, some accounts, including the Air Force’s space-based missile warning and satellite launching programs, received less money in the final bill than was recommended in earlier versions drafted by the House and Senate appropriations committees. 

But none of the cuts appears drastic enough to derail previously announced space procurement plans. The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle account absorbed the biggest hit — Congress appropriated $1.51 billion versus the president’s request of $1.88 billion — but that program’s budget tends to fluctuate based on the number of launches expected in a given year. 

One can quibble with various program allocations, but on the whole the story is positive: The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 puts an end, at least for now, to the budgetary limbo in which many of the U.S. government’s most important space programs have languished for the better part of two years. It should help stabilize weather satellite programs, give the Air Force the confidence it needs to move ahead with delayed contract awards — the Space Fence orbital surveillance system comes to mind — and shore up NASA’s cash-starved Commercial Crew Program, which offers the best near-term hope for restoring an independent U.S. astronaut-launching capability.

As a bonus, the bill also extends by three years the indemnification regime that protects U.S. commercial launch providers against third-party damage claims exceeding $500 million. A previous bill drafted in the House sought to limit the extension to one year, while the Senate had pushed for three years. By going with the Senate recommendation, Congress has given itself — and commercial launch providers — one less thing to worry about during the next two legislative years. 

Congress shouldn’t get too much credit for fulfilling one of its most basic legislative responsibilities — more than three months late — but it nonetheless is important to recognize this welcome departure from the dysfunction that has gripped its membership for the past couple of years. Here’s hoping the spending bill’s passage marks the beginning of a more productive era on Capitol Hill.