Editorial | Positive Developments on Capitol Hill
After several years of taking legislative dysfunction to new heights, the U.S. Congress has shown signs in recent weeks of a return to some semblance of sanity.
The first positive indicator was the House’s passage of legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which has been in limbo — able to fulfill the terms of existing loans but unable to make new ones — since July, costing U.S. satellite manufacturers whose European competitors continue to have access to export credit agency backing from their own governments. It took a bold and rarely used procedural maneuver to get the measure to the House floor, but once there the bill passed with bipartisan support and seems likely to be approved by the Senate in the coming days.
Then came the two-year budget agreement reached Oct. 26 between the Congress and the White House. The measure, signed into law by President Barack Obama Nov. 2, raises the U.S. debt ceiling — thus removing, at the least for the next two years, a recurring opportunity for partisan brinkmanship and government shutdowns — and relaxes the sequestration budget caps that have crimped NASA and Department of Defense programs and complicated planning.
The agreement almost immediately resurrected the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, which Mr. Obama vetoed in October over Congress’ resort to using emergency wartime spending accounts to get around the sequestration caps on military spending. The NDAA contains a number of space-related policy provisions, notably a relaxation of the ban on the military use of Russian-made rocket engines that should enable United Launch Alliance to stay in the Pentagon launch business, at least in the near-term.
Per the larger budget deal, the revised NDAA authorizes $5 billion less for Pentagon programs than the previous version, and $30 million of that will be taken from space accounts, with missile defense chipping in another $80 million. That seems a small price to pay to get the measure passed.
It’s worth noting, however, that the $5 million carved out of the Air Force’s Weather Satellite Follow-on program in the new bill appears to reflect continued confusion over the service’s overall weather strategy. The Air Force has done little to clear that up that in recent months, and may have made it worse by telling lawmakers in a recent report that a proposed small satellite intended in part to plug the gap between the legacy and future systems will be launched three years later than previously projected. The NDAA’s weather-related provisions, including a hold on funds allocated to the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, attest to the Air Force’s need to settle on a weather satellite strategy and articulate it clearly to Congress.
Both the House and Senate have approved the revised NDAA.
There remains a possibility, albeit one that appears less likely than it did just or two weeks ago, of a government shutdown once the continuing resolution currently funding federal activities expires Dec. 11. In negotiating the budget agreement in his swan song as House speaker, then-Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) circumvented the House Freedom Caucus, the source of much of the Washington gridlock in recent years. The concern is that this combative group will try and torpedo the follow-on appropriations bill with provisions the Senate and White House are sure to reject.
Such an outcome would immediately undo the progress on the budget and send the unmistakable that Congress remains incapable of solid governance.