WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic congressional aides told attendees of a space exploration seminar here Nov. 2 that they do not expect NASA’s support in the U.S Congress to change dramatically regardless of the results of this year’s elections.
Heading into the Nov. 7 congressional elections, pollsters were predicting Democrats would pick up enough seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to form a majority there for the first time since 1994. Democrats also were expected to make gains in the Senate, although perhaps not enough to take the majority away from the Republicans who hold a 10-seat advantage.
A panel of four senior congressional aides who track NASA were quizzed on what a Democratic takeover of Congress would mean for the U.S. space agency, its near-term budgets, and its longer-term plans for returning astronauts to the Moon. The seminar was organized by the American Astronautical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in conjunction with George Mason University.
Paul Carliner, the Democratic staff director on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, said if Democrats have a majority in either the House or Senate when the 110th Congress convenes in January, he would expect to see a modest increase in domestic discretionary spending that could, in turn, translate into more money for NASA. But then again, Carliner said, it might not.
“The era when we could add hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to a budget, those days are long gone,” Carliner said.
Carliner was more circumspect about predicting how NASA’s 2007 budget would fare, saying so much depended on the “mood of Congress” after the elections. The House in June approved a spending bill that included $16.7 billion for NASA, a little less than the White House requested. The Senate has yet to follow suit. However, a NASA spending bill that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee in July would provide $17.8 billion for the agency, a sum that includes an extra $1 billion of proposed emergency spending intended to pay NASA back for what it spent improving the space shuttle following the 2004 Columbia accident.
Carliner said he felt the $1 billion amendment, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has “a reasonable shot” at making it through the Senate and surviving conference with the House.
Regardless, Carliner said any extra money for NASA, if Democrats have their say, likely would be used to bolster spending on the agency’s science and aeronautics programs, both of which are facing reductions.
“We’d like to see money put back in to some of the bread and butter competed science programs that have been very successful,” he said, mentioning by name NASA’s Explorers Program of low-cost science missions and the Science Mission Directorate’s research and analysis budgets, which have been targeted for reductions to the dismay of grant-funded scientists.
“So there may be a desire to put some money back into science and aeronautics but not at the expense of human spaceflight or to slow down progress we’re making toward returning to the Moon,” he said. “The operative word is balance.”
That sentiment was echoed by the other three panelists: Jeff Bingham, the Republican staff director on the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee; Chuck Atkins, the Democratic staff director on the House Science Committee; and Johannes Loschnigg, the Republican staff director on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee.
All three had a hand in shepherding the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 through Congress last year. That bill gave the first formal congressional endorsement to NASA’s plan to retire the shuttle, build new launchers and return to the Moon and called for maintaining a balanced space program supported by bigger budgets than the White House so far has been willing to request.
Loschnigg said the $17.9 billion Congress authorized for spending on NASA programs for 2007 — about $1 billion more than the White House is seeking — was a figure arrived at only after a very careful consideration of NASA programs and priorities.
“That number wasn’t just pulled out of the air,” he said. “That wasn’t a random number. That was fairly well thought out.”
Atkins said House Democrats largely agree that NASA needs more funding and would expect to see Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the House Science Committee’s ranking Democrat, continue to push for a bigger NASA budget, should he succeed Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) as committee chairman next year.
“On the House Science Committee, you won’t notice much change if the House does flip and become Democratic majority, from the current chairman, Mr. Boehlert, and Mr. Gordon,” Atkins said. “They’ve got a very cordial relationship and they are often on the same page … both believe that part of NASA’s problem and some of the competition [within the agency] is really because there’s not enough [money] provided to a key agency like NASA for all of its missions including manned exploration, aeronautics, science and so forth.”
Bingham, likewise, predicted little if any upheaval in the Senate, as far as NASA’s concerned, in the next Congress.
“We don’t see a great gap between the chairmen and ranking members of either the appropriators or the authorizing committees in the Senate,” Bingham said. “So a switch there would mean really only a shift in areas of emphasis and priorities, not a major shift or change in support level, at least philosophically, for NASA if there’s a change in Senate leadership.”