Editorial: A Deficit of Political Courage

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U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and 10 GOP colleagues on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee deserve credit for giving a congressional deficit-reduction panel a specific list of activities under their jurisdiction that could contribute to the cause. Unfortunately, however, they missed an opportunity to propose overhauling the nation’s sprawling research and development infrastructure, much of which is outdated and unneeded.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, popularly known as the supercommittee, is racing to meet a Nov. 23 deadline for proposing legislation to bring the nation’s staggering debt under control. The panel sought input from the congressional committees that oversee all aspects of U.S. federal spending.

The Science Committee, which Rep. Hall chairs, proposed cuts amounting to $1.5 billion in 2012, which might not sound like much relative to the nation’s $15 trillion debt that’s growing by more than $1 trillion a year. But most congressional committees responded to the supercommittee’s call for ideas with little more than turf-protecting recommendations of what not to cut.

Rep. Hall’s Democratic counterpart on the science panel, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, wrote her own letter to the supercommittee but offered no concrete proposals. She contented herself with casting federal spending on science and technology as “an important component of any serious effort to achieve long-term deficit reduction.”

Similarly, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee submitted a joint letter to the supercommittee urging the creation of a national broadband network for first responders but offering no suggestions on reining in spending.

The entire U.S. discretionary budget — a proposed $1.3 trillion for 2012, with over half that amount going to the Department of Defense — is eclipsed by $2.1 trillion in projected mandatory spending, a category that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and interest payments on the national debt. Reform of these mandatory, or entitlement, programs, in combination with some tax increases, is the only realistic option for curtailing the nation’s massive deficit.

But Republicans and increasing numbers of Democrats have seized on discretionary spending as the central thrust of any deficit-reduction proposal. As a result, sacrifices are being demanded of every part of the federal budget, and NASA is unlikely to be given a pass.

While Rep. Hall and his colleagues are to be commended for putting specific budget-reducing recommendations on the table, they passed up a chance to propose something that could truly make a difference, opting instead to go after a favorite GOP target: climate research.

More than 10 percent of their recommended science spending cuts would fall on NASA, specifically the agency’s $1.8 billion-a-year Earth science program. Ignoring the multibillion-dollar elephants in the room — the Space Launch System, Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and James Webb Space Telescope — the lawmakers proposed killing the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, a $200 million replacement for an identical satellite lost to a 2009 launch mishap.

If the supercommittee heeds that recommendation, the fate of NASA’s first satellite built exclusively to map carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere will be decided in an up-or-down vote just before Christmas on a package of spending cuts and various reforms meant to reduce the nation’s debt by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

How much money is saved by pulling the plug on Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2? According to Rep. Hall and his Republican colleagues, the figure is $149 million over five years, or about one-hundredth of a percent of the savings the supercommittee has been challenged to find.

A further $728 million would be saved by trimming 20 percent from the budget lines that fund NASA’s biggest and smallest Earth science missions.

Also targeted were Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration environmental research programs. Rep. Hall and company proposed deeply cutting the former’s Atmospheric Systems Research and Climate and Earth Systems Modeling programs, and denying the latter’s request to consolidate several functions into a Climate Research Service.

Instead of taking the predictable partisan potshots at NASA’s most practical field of research, the House Science Committee Republicans could have asked the supercommittee to charter a Base Realignment and Closure-type process encompassing not just NASA’s 10 regional field centers and subordinate facilities but all major federal research and development facilities.

If there ever was an opportune time to streamline the nation’s research and development infrastructure, much of which dates back to World War II, this is it. NASA certainly would run more efficiently with one or two fewer field centers; the same undoubtedly is true of the Energy Department’s national laboratories and various other federal facilities.

A truly bold deficit-reduction proposal — one that actually could make a dent in discretionary spending — would have sought to retool and reshape the U.S. research and development apparatus for the challenges of the future. Unfortunately, Rep. Hall’s proposals, while noteworthy, fall well short of that and come much closer to politics as usual.