U.S. midterm elections shake up space policy landscape on Capitol Hill

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

A “blue wave” that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections swept away key figures in space policy, including the chairman of the subcommittee that funds NASA.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee, lost his bid for a tenth term in Congress Nov. 6, defeated by Democrat Lizzie Pannill. He was among a wave of defeats that ended eight years of Republican control of the House.

Culberson had chaired the CJS subcommittee for the last four years. That gave him jurisdiction over the budgets of NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation. He used that chairmanship to advocate for increasing NASA’s overall budget, including $21.5 billion for the agency in a fiscal year 2019 bill approved by the full committee in May.

Culberson is best known for his support for missions to Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter with a subsurface ocean of liquid water that makes it potentially habitable. Culberson added funding well above administration requests for both Europa Clipper, a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter making multiple flybys of the moon, as well as a follow-on lander. That included $545 million for Europa Clipper and $195 million for the lander in the 2019 bill, compared to the original request of $264.7 million for Clipper nothing for the lander.

That advocacy worked against him, though, back home in Texas. “John Culberson’s ideas are out of this world. He wanted NASA to search for aliens on Europa,” stated one campaign ad from a political action committee supporting Fletcher. The ad, depicting Culberson riding a rocket, argued he was not doing enough to fund local flood control projects. “For Houston, Lizzie Fletcher will invest in humans, not aliens.”

Several other House members involved in space policy also lost their reelection bids. They include three members of the House Science Committee: Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and Steve Knight (R-Calif.) The three played small roles in space policy, with Knight, for example, frequently promoting the “first A” in NASA, or aeronautics.

Rep. John Culberson (R Texas) , who lost his bid for reelection, watches President Trump sign the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. Credit: NASA
Rep. John Culberson (R Texas) , who lost his bid for reelection, watches President Trump sign the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. Credit: NASA

A fourth committee member, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), was losing his reelection race, but had not conceded as of early Nov. 9 with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted. Rohrabacher has long been a supporter of commercial space and planetary defense on the committee, as well as a critic of the Space Launch System.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services strategic force subcommittee, also lost reelection. Coffman had supported United Launch Alliance, raising questions about the reliability of SpaceX and how the Air Force was competing launches between the two companies. More recently, he had been a critic of the proposed Space Force.

Senate uncertainty

On election night, it appeared that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the most influential Democratic senator on space policy, had lost his bid for a fourth term. Results showed Republican Rick Scott, the state’s governor, with a narrow lead, and Scott declared victory that night.

However, that margin has narrowed from more than 40,000 votes on election night to about 15,000 by early Nov. 9 as absentee votes were counted. Nelson declined to concede defeat. “We are proceeding to a recount,” he said in a Nov. 7 statement, a process that could stretch on for weeks.

There was no uncertainty about the fate of Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who lost reelection to Republican Mike Braun. Donnelly was the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, with oversight of military space activities. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, prevailed in a tough reelection battle against Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

Civil and military space implications

While Republicans added to their Senate majority, Democrats took control of the House for the first time since 2010. That will mean a new set of committee leaders who will likely have different priorities, including for space policy.

That could spell bad news for the White House’s proposal to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who is expected to chair the House Armed Services Committee, said this fall he doubted the need for a Space Force given its projected cost.

“It’s dimmed the chances that, in its current form, it can make it through Congress,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. However, he said Smith may back alternative concepts, like a Space Corps within the Air Force that had previously been supported by the committee.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), right, was trailing his opponent as Florida headed toward a recount. Sen. Ted Cruz (R Texas), left, won reelection. Credit: NASA
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), right, was trailing his opponent as Florida headed toward a recount. Sen. Ted Cruz (R Texas), left, won reelection. Credit: NASA

“There probably would be bipartisan support for a Space Corps,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. “The question is, will the White House be able to live with that, or will they hold out and demand a Space Force?”

With Culberson’s defeat and the change in party control, the CJS appropriations subcommittee will likely be chaired next year by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), the current ranking member. Serrano had not focused on space issues on the subcommittee beyond criticizing proposals to cut NASA education and Earth science programs.

Culberson’s loss means trouble for some NASA programs, particularly the Europa Clipper and lander missions. Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society, said he expected the Europa Clipper mission to continue, although perhaps at a slower pace. The mission recently completed its preliminary design review and also ranked highly in the most recent decadal survey.

The same is not true for the lander, which is still in a very early stage of development and considered premature by many scientists. “I have a hard time seeing how the Europa lander project continues without Culberson, because NASA has not formally requested the mission, and it lacks consensus support from the scientific community,” Dreier said.

Culberson’s departure, though, could make it easier for NASA to cooperate with China. Culberson had continued to include language in appropriations bills first added by his predecessor, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), strictly limiting bilateral activities. “I think there is a chance that language might get softened or possibly even go away,” Weeden said.

The House Science Committee will likely be chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the current ranking member. In a statement Nov. 6, she announced a set of priorities for the committee, including ensuring that the country “remains the global leader in innovation,” addressing climate change and seeking to “restore the credibility of the Science Committee as a place where science is respected.” Space was not explicitly mentioned in that agenda.

The committee’s largely bipartisan work on space policy may see few changes in the new Congress. “The broad bipartisan support for the first three Space Policy Directives will hopefully continue regarding NASA’s lunar initiatives, important reforms at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and Commerce’s growing role in space,” said Jim Muncy, president of PoliSpace.