NASA does not figure to be high on the list of priorities when the new Congress convenes in January, but the shift in the balance of political power following the Nov. 7 elections is not without implications for the U.S. space agency.
If Democrats, newly ordained as the majority party in both the House and Senate, live up to their promise to implement ethical reforms and increase transparency in the way business is done on Capitol Hill, reforming the out-of-control use of budget earmarks should be high on their list of priorities.
Curing lawmakers of their pork addiction is no easy task. Congress is constitutionally entitled to make changes to the budget submitted by a president, but the process is broken. Instead of challenging the administration’s priorities during budget hearings and then publicly voting for a new set of priorities, the appropriations committees in both the House and Senate increasingly have been adding hundreds of millions of dollars to agency budgets at the last minute without open debate and without proportionately increasing an agency’s budget request. The net effect on NASA and others is that they are forced to cut approved programs to make room for all the pork.
The new Congress also should keep NASA on the course set back in January 2004 when President George W. Bush unveiled plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2010 and lay the groundwork for exploration deeper into the solar system.
The president’s Vision for Space Exploration was endorsed broadly by Democrats as well as Republicans in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Democrats have given no indication in recent months that they would move against it should they take control of Congress. But human space exploration is an expensive endeavor whose benefits are often difficult to explain. The danger is that it presents a very tempting target for a newly empowered party seeking to establish its credentials in fiscal responsibility.
Democrats naturally will want to exercise their own brand of NASA oversight, and they have every right to make adjustments to the president’s budget request. There are indications, for example, that some Democrats will seek more funding for NASA’s science and aeronautics programs, which have been hard hit as the agency deals with ballooning costs on key projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, while working to simultaneously retire the space shuttle fleet and develop a replacement vehicle.
A good way for Congress to make more money available for science and aeronautics — and for Democratic leaders to fulfill their campaign promises of reform — would be to rein in the parasitic earmarks that claimed $535 million of NASA’s $16.5 billion budget in 2006. Some of these earmarks are legitimate, but too many are for wasteful projects that benefit a single member’s district and have only a passing connection to the space program.
Earmark reform aside, it is imperative that NASA continue in the strategic direction mapped out by President Bush in 2004. This course was long overdue; it was adopted only after the Space Shuttle Columbia forced the nation to re-evaluate the purpose of its human spaceflight program. To retreat now would be to put that program on an inexorable path to irrelevance.