Returning U.S. Lawmakers Will Have Little Time for Space

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess Sept. 8 to a full slate of space policy issues, but very little time available to deal with them.

The top priority for returning lawmakers is passage of a continuing resolution, or CR, to fund the federal government after Sept. 30. While the House of Representatives has approved several 2015 appropriations bills, including the Commerce, Justice, and Science bill that funds NASA, the Senate has yet to pass any appropriations bills.

The Republican leadership of the House is likely to introduce a CR early in the week. In an Aug. 20 interview with the publication Roll Call, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he expected a CR would last until December and would be a “clean” one, without any controversial policy provisions. Debate over the Affordable Care Act derailed a CR last September, causing a two-week shutdown of most of the federal government.

Congress will also likely address at least a short-term reauthorization of the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank in September. Authorization for the bank, which has in recent years supported financing of commercial satellite and launch orders, expires at the end of the month. Some House Republicans, including the new majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), oppose the Ex-Im Bank’s reauthorization, at least in its current form.

Those priorities, and a constrained schedule — the House plans to be in session for only 12 days before adjourning on Oct. 2 until mid-November — means that several pieces of space-related legislation may not make much progress until after the election, if at all. They include:

  • NASA Authorization. The House passed a one-year NASA authorization bill June 9, but the Senate has yet to take up that bill or move forward with its own bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee approved on a party-line vote in July 2013. Despite that lack of action, some key House members remain optimistic about a bill. “I feel confident that the Senate is going to move forward on its authorization,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee, said in a July 26 interview. “I do hope that it’s one of those things that can be done by the end of this year.”
  • Commercial Space Launch Act. Members of both the House and Senate have discussed amending the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) to tackle issues ranging from launch indemnification to an extension of the “learning period” that limits commercial spaceflight regulation. No legislation has been introduced, but some members remain hopeful Congress can pass a bill of some kind this year. “It is my hope, before this Congress is finished, that we will be able to get some updates to the CSLA passed,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee, said July 17 at the Future Space Leaders Conference.
  • Asteroid Property Rights. In July, Reps. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act. The bill grants property right to resources extracted from asteroids, although not the asteroids themselves, and would give American companies involved in asteroid mining freedom from harmful interference. The House Science space subcommittee will hold a hearing on the bill Sept. 10, with several planetary scientists and a space law expert scheduled to testify.

Some in government remain skeptical that even a NASA authorization bill, the furthest along of these issues, will make it through Congress before it adjourns in December.

“They have talked off and on about an authorization bill, but we don’t see any serious movement there right now,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council July 30, referring to the Senate. “I am not optimistic that we will get an authorization bill until 2015.”