PRIVATE hnjset:<*h”Great H&J’s”> PRIVATE colorchange:<c”Black”> There is little doubt that U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) wants what’s best for NASA, particularly the human spaceflight program. During his time on the House Science Committee, and more recently the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Weldon, who represents the district surrounding NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, has been unwavering in his advocacy for the space shuttle and space station programs, as well as U.S. President George W. Bush’s plan for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
Unfortunately, the seven-term lawmaker’s latest gesture in support of NASA was noteworthy more as a gratuitous and largely baseless attack on his Democratic colleagues than as a plan or proposal to get the space agency out of its current funding predicament. In a pair of press releases issued May 1 and 2, Mr. Weldon accused Democrats of no less than leaving America’s human spaceflight program to twist in the wind.
“Our strategic competitors, like China, are putting their manned space program into overdrive while the Democratic majority is in the process of prescribing Ambien to our program,” Mr. Weldon said in the May 1 press release, issued to call attention to an amendment he had introduced that was designed to prevent raids on NASA’s budget to pay for National Science Foundation (NSF) programs. At the time, the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on an NSF authorization bill for 2008-2010, which recommends a roughly $600 million increase for the agency next year.
House Democrats refused on procedural grounds to allow Mr. Weldon’s amendment to come up for a vote, and the NSF bill was passed by the House May 2. This drew another, more incendiary missive from Mr. Weldon. Charging that Democrats were out to cripple NASA’s human spaceflight program, Mr. Weldon called the rejection of his amendment “an assault on the civilian workers and contractors who are about to have their lives disrupted because Democrats can’t divert NASA funding fast enough to their other priorities.”
Those are pretty sensational charges — even from someone who has been known on occasion to lob rhetorical grenades at Democrats. They might come as a surprise to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who over the years has used her powerful position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fight as doggedly and effectively as anyone in Congress on behalf of NASA and human spaceflight. And while the senator’s influence certainly puts her near or at the top of any list of NASA’s Democratic friends in Congress, she is by no means a lone crusader: Several prominent Democrats in both the House and Senate have actively sought to engage the White House in recent weeks and months to try and find ways to alleviate NASA’s budget crunch.
Mr. Weldon based his accusations on Democratic proposals to boost NSF funding coupled with the omnibus spending bill for 2007 — crafted by the newly empowered Democrats — that kept funding for most civilian U.S. agencies at 2006 levels. For NASA, that translated into a $500 million reduction from the president’s 2007 request, which Mr. Weldon said made it possible for Democrats to propose a $2 billion budget increase for the NSF in 2007. It turns out that Mr. Weldon got both the year and number wrong with respect to the NSF: The Democratic proposal to which he intended to refer was the authorization bill for 2008-2010.
But more to the point, Mr. Weldon’s underlying assertion, that Democrats are out to eviscerate the human spaceflight program, simply does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It is true, of course, that NASA and the NSF draw their funding from the same pot of federal money, and that increases for one agency could in theory come at the expense of the other. It also is true that Democrats do not share the same funding priorities as Republicans.
But Mr. Weldon is overlooking some important truths, starting with the fact that last year’s Republican-led Congress sought increases for the NSF similar to those contained in the 2008-2010 authorization bill. That same Congress also had the chance to pass a NASA appropriations bill with the funding increase sought by President Bush, but failed to do so. Further, and as many Republicans will attest, the White House in recent years has not proposed adequate funding for NASA to carry out all of the missions on its plate.
The bottom line is that Democrats and Republicans alike share responsibility for where NASA is today. And with the White House now in one camp and Congress in the other, and with a general election a year and a half away, it should be fairly obvious that any lasting solution will have to be crafted on a bipartisan basis.
As a veteran lawmaker with as much stake as anyone in the human spaceflight program, Mr. Weldon is positioned to take a leading role on behalf of his party in working with Democrats to find that solution. Unfortunately, he seems more interested right now in scoring cheap political points in his home district than doing something meaningful to help NASA.