Congress Backs Constellation in Omnibus Spending Bill

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WASHINGTON — The White House is expected to set a new direction for NASA’s human spaceflight program in its 2011 budget request to lawmakers in February, but political observers say language contained in a 2010 omnibus spending package finalized Dec. 8 means change will not come quickly.

Earlier this year, a White House-appointed panel known as the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, found NASA’s current plan to replace the space shuttle with vehicles optimized for the Moon is incompatible with the agency’s projected budget. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing a number of scenarios outlined in the Augustine panel’s Oct. 22 final report, and is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks that likely will reshape the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight activities and investments.

While the 2010 omnibus spending bill fully funds the president’s $18.7 billion request for NASA, including $3.8 billion for space exploration, it includes a provision barring any significant changes to the agency’s current human spaceflight development program — dubbed Constellation — without congressional approval in the form of a new appropriation.

Scott Pace, a former NASA official who heads the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University here, said the bill, hammered out by House and Senate appropriations conferees and approved by the full House Dec. 10, demonstrates a firm political commitment to Constellation from Capitol Hill.

“It shows there is congressional support for the program of record until a sensible way to change is presented,” Pace said of the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act that combines six spending bills, including the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2010 that directs NASA spending. “Some things could still change, maybe for better, maybe for worse, but concrete proposals have to come forward, and the fiscal 2011 budget will be really important in terms of articulating administration priorities for space.”

Pace said the burden is now on the administration to justify a change in course. “Just as people had to be persuaded of [former President George W. Bush’s] 2004 Vision for Space Exploration in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, and in the aftermath of the Vision that [NASA’s chosen exploration architecture] was a reasonable way forward, proposals for change need to respond to questions of ‘what do you have that’s better and why?’” Pace said. “I think people are open to change; the case just hasn’t been made.”

Paul Carliner, a former senior staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, characterized the 2010 NASA spending package as a perfect compromise.

“It preserves funding for human spaceflight and gives the administration the flexibility to respond to the Augustine report, but it doesn’t provide a blank check,” said Carliner, now president of Carliner Strategies LLC, a consulting firm here.

Carliner said if the Obama administration had reached rapid consensus on a path forward and submitted an amended 2010 budget request to lawmakers in September, shortly after the Augustine panel issued its initial report, the 2010 appropriation might have included some leeway to make changes. But in the absence of a presidential decision on the future of NASA spaceflight activities and investments, Congress had no choice but to stick with the status quo.

Although language in the Senate version of the NASA spending bill would have given the administration flexibility to submit an amended budget request, the final omnibus appropriation requires that any significant deviation from the current program be subject to the full appropriations process.

“Congress has to approve a change to the spaceflight architecture one way or another,” Carliner said. “If you are going to consider these kinds of changes, you need to do it in an appropriate way.”

William Adkins, a former senior staff member on the House Science and Technology Committee, said lawmakers need time to review the president’s plan before authorizing a new program and appropriating funds to pay for it.

“It’s disappointing that the administration wasn’t able to provide an amended 2010 plan for the Hill to consider, but I’m not sure injecting a major change in policy and program direction at the eleventh-hour in a conference report is the best way to make such a fundamental decision anyway,” said Adkins, who now runs his own consulting firm, Adkins Strategies LLC here. Adkins said the omnibus legislation reveals strong political opposition to change.

“This is pretty strong stuff,” he said. “It underscores that key stakeholders want to ensure they have a hand in shaping NASA’s future, and don’t want to leave it to the vagaries of the reprogramming process. The 2011 budget will be out in a couple months and there will be time for the key committees and members to consider the new plan in hearings and the usual legislative process. It may be slow and painful, but it’s really the only way to build a lasting consensus.”

Although making quick changes to Constellation could prove difficult, some political observers say it is not impossible. Congress is expected, for example, to take up a supplemental 2010 defense appropriation early next year to cover costs associated with the president’s plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The administration could seek a so-called rider to that bill that would allow for changes to Constellation on a more rapid timetable.

Under such a scenario, the president could submit an amended 2010 NASA budget request alongside the regular 2011 budget submission in February.

But there are significant hurdles. For example, proposed changes to Constellation likely would face opposition from Alabama’s congressional delegation, whose members are staunch advocates of the program and the jobs it affords constituents at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Even if the administration manages to placate Alabama lawmakers’ concerns, key members of the Senate and House appropriations committees likely would frown on any legislative riders that could complicate passage of a 2010 war supplemental.

“Any controversy that puts the defense supplemental at risk [means] Christmas-tree ornaments like that get rejected real quick,” said one NASA observer familiar with the congressional appropriations process. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not a realistic way forward.”

House and Senate authorizers could also stymie such efforts if they are not on board, a second political observer said. “The authorizers may cry foul, asserting that they are the keepers of policy and that they will speak on changes to the program of record through 2011 authorizing legislation,” this observer said.

Absent a supplemental appropriation for 2010, the administration could choose to slow spending on key elements of Constellation, including the controversial Ares 1 launcher, while awaiting congressional approval for changes, the second observer said.