WASHINGTON — As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to introduce a spending bill for the remainder of 2011 that would reduce NASA’s budget by more than $100 million compared with 2010, a senior agency official asked lawmakers for legislative relief from a measure that he says is impeding NASA as it seeks to carry out a congressional directive to build a heavy-lift rocket and crew exploration capsule.
At issue is a 2010 prohibition on canceling contracts associated with the Constellation program, a space shuttle replacement and lunar exploration initiative that U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to abandon. Although one lawmaker said the forthcoming 2011 spending bill could provide the relief NASA is seeking, opinions on Capitol Hill differ as to whether the space agency’s hands are truly tied.
In testimony before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee Feb. 10, NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin insisted that the agency needs to be freed from the restrictive language contained in the law that funded NASA in 2010. That measure remains in effect owing to Congress’ failure to pass any spending bills for the full 2011 fiscal year; since Sept. 30, the federal government has been operating under a series of so-called continuing resolutions, the latest of which expires March 4.
“We encourage this subcommittee to support enactment of a legislative solution as soon as possible,” Martin told the panel, which oversees NASA spending. “There are big, big dollars at stake.”
Martin initially alerted key lawmakers to NASA’s quandary in a Jan. 13 letter detailing spending on Constellation under the stopgap spending measure, asserting that by March 1 the agency expects to have spent $215 million during fiscal 2011 on elements of the 6-year-old program it might otherwise abandon. Martin said if the prohibition remains in place through the end of the current budget year, that figure will rise to more than $575 million.
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which Obama signed into law in October, directs NASA to begin developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew exploration capsule using space shuttle and Constellation technology and contracts, and recommends $2.75 billion for the effort this year. But Martin said NASA will have trouble following that guidance so long as the ban on terminating Constellation contracts remains in place.
“I think they’re doing about as good as they can under the constraint and the prohibitive language in the existing [continuing resolution] to try to effectuate what the new direction is in the 2010 authorization, but frankly they’re between a rock and a hard place,” Martin said.
Whether or not Congress will offer legislative relief is unclear.
House lawmakers are expected to introduce the week of Feb. 14 a new continuing resolution that would fund the space agency and other parts of the federal government through the end of the fiscal year. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) announced Feb. 9 plans to trim some $74 billion in proposed spending from the president’s 2011 funding request under the new stopgap spending plan. A partial list of the proposed cuts posted on the committee’s website indicates a $379 million cut to the $19 billion Obama requested for NASA in 2011, potentially leaving the agency with $103 million less to work with than the $18.74 billion Congress appropriated in 2010.
In a Feb. 10 press release, Rogers upped the ante, saying the bill would seek government-wide spending cuts totaling $100 billion relative to the 2011 request.
During the hearing, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said he believed Congress should take action to lift the proviso on terminating Constellation contracts, which would free the agency to spend money on initiatives directed in the NASA Authorization Act.
“At some point, having the agency waste money that we know is a waste on a project that we have determined is not going to happen doesn’t make any sense, especially at a time where we say we don’t want to waste money and we want to cut spending,” Fattah said.
But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the subcommittee’s chairman, questioned Martin’s methodology in determining the amount of NASA funding being spent on Constellation.
“NASA headquarters told us that they disagree with your findings,” Wolf said, asserting that NASA feels it is appropriately directing Constellation funding toward projects and activities that are applicable to the new exploration architecture directed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
Martin defended his audit, explaining that he asked Constellation program managers and the headquarters officials to whom they report how the program would spend money differently if the prohibition on terminating Constellation contracts were removed.
“These are their numbers. These are their answers,” Martin said. “They’re not our answers. They’re not the inspector general’s policy call about how money is not being used efficiently. That’s our methodology, asking the program people.”
Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said he expects House lawmakers will clarify congressional intent regarding NASA’s new direction and plans to dismantle Constellation in the forthcoming continuing resolution.
“I’m confident the bill we’re going to pass is going to give clarification to that to ensure the authorization act is the one that prevails and that we follow,” Culberson said during the hearing.
As the measure inches forward, congressional sources said the continuing resolution could be subject to amendments during debate on the House floor. If the measure passes the full House, it will be sent to the Democratic-controlled Senate for consideration. However, if the two chambers are unable to reach agreement on the measure by March 4, congressional observers said lawmakers likely will approve a short-term measure to keep the government from shutting down while deliberations on a 2011 spending plan continue.