Just when it began to look as though Congress would actually pass a budget in time for the start of the fiscal year ahead, politics as usual once again has intervened.
A so-called minibus appropriations bill that would have funded a wide range of federal activities, including civil space, next year was headed for a June 19 debate and vote on the Senate floor when it was derailed by a partisan procedural impasse. No new date for floor action has been scheduled.
Although there are three months to go before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the congressional calendar is much shorter. Congress, which returned to work July 7 after a weeklong break, has just four legislative weeks left before it breaks again for its traditional August recess. This being an election year, lawmakers will be spending much if not most of their time from then until November wooing voters in their home districts.
July might therefore be the best window of opportunity for getting a budget passed. But if history is any indication, that’s a questionable prospect at best, meaning there is an increasing likelihood that agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will begin next year operating under a continuing resolution that funds activities at 2014 levels — assuming no showdowns that halt spending for large sectors of the government.
That, in turn, means more uncertainty for NASA, and in particular for a commercial crew program that by Sept. 30 should have entered its final development phase. Although both the House and Senate versions of the bill would provide NASA its largest appropriation to date for commercial crew, the Senate bill as currently written includes Federal Acquisition Regulation compliance requirements that could disrupt the program. There is opposition to that language and hopefully it will be stricken from the final bill, but until that happens it’s just one more thing NASA has to worry about.
In recent years, continuing resolutions have been the norm rather than the exception for a bitterly divided Congress, but until mid-June there was reason to hope that 2014 would be different. Unfortunately, the safer bet right now is that nothing fundamentally has changed.