Editorial | Fiscal Irresponsibility, the Sequel

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Possibility of Government Shutdown Makes CR Look Good

For stakeholders in the U.S. government space enterprise, the most important agenda item for Congress, which returned to work Sept. 8 after a month-long recess, is passing a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 that will keep high-priority programs on track. Unfortunately, the prospects of that happening in time look bleak, and an uglier scenario — budgetary chaos — is looming.

Until recently the best bet was that lawmakers would settle for a continuing resolution, or CR, that funds federal activities at 2015 levels, at least for the first part of the year. CRs have become new norm for a Congress that seems more interested in posturing than compromising and legislating, and they continue to make it difficult to execute programs that require budget increases to stay on track.

For NASA, this will perhaps hurt most on the commercial crew development program, the agency’s effort to restore independent U.S. access to the International Space Station. Without a substantial increase, the program will fall further behind schedule, forcing NASA to continue paying Russia for space station crew transportation. A flat budget also likely will require a restructuring of contracts with the two U.S. companies developing commercial crew taxis, Boeing and SpaceX, driving up the cost of both.

Department of Defense space programs also will be affected. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, a long-overdue upgrade to the department’s nerve center for space activity, the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), will be delayed absent a budget increase for 2015. So too will the planned replacement for the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 satellite, which keeps tabs on objects in geostationary orbit.

Both programs are part of a much broader defense and intelligence community initiative to better understand and control the near-Earth space environment in light of increasing congestion and what government officials say are growing threats posed by China and Russia. The threats are the impetus behind plans to invest more than $5 billion over the next five years on a number of mostly classified activities to better protect U.S. space capabilities. These projects also would be placed on hold by a CR.

The White House has submitted an “anomalies” list asking Congress for special dispensation under a CR to increase the budgets for commercial crew, the JSpOC Mission System upgrade and the SBSS follow-on satellite, an indication of their importance. The very least Congress could do is grant these requests, allowing the programs to move forward until lawmakers finally get their act together enough to pass a 2016 budget, something that might not happen before the fiscal year is several months old — if at all.

Unfortunately, it now appears that a relatively small cadre of House members has other plans. The group is threatening to block Congress from passing any kind of a budget, including a CR, a move that would force a shutdown of all but the most essential government functions.

This is the same block of ultra conservatives, give or take a few members, that forced a 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013. Back then it was over U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act. This time the issue appears to be federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a favorite bogeyman of the conservative movement.

As was the case in 2013, a government shutdown will succeed only in causing a huge and costly disruption to government programs and services. Although the Pentagon managed to avoid most of the consequences last time, NASA was forced to furlough most of its workforce and halt work on all but a few programs, causing delays and unnecessary cost increases.

Those that orchestrated the last shutdown failed in their main objective of reversing the Affordable Care Act and there is no reason to believe they will be any more successful this time around. But that seems to be beside the point; these members seem primarily interested in scoring ideological points with their core voters.

If there is any good news, it is that leaders in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle are aware of the consequences of a shutdown and are scrambling to avert one. If they are successful, it will be a relief, to be sure. It is nonetheless a sorry state of affairs when a CR passes for victory.