In the first real congressional test between the Constellation return to the Moon program and the Obama space plan, which bypasses the Moon, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science declined to choose.
Instead, while appropriating the full $19 billion Obama administration request for NASA, with some changes within accounts, the subcommittee declined to release any funding for exploration, either for Constellation, the Obama plan, or anything in between, until a new NASA authorization bill is passed. This represents an almost unprecedented deferral of the appropriators to the authorizers in the House Science and Technology Committee, where NASA funding is concerned.
Usually, it has been the practice in Congress for the appropriators to decide what NASA does by their power to determine how the money gets spent. The authorizers, who technically pass legislation setting the direction and goals for NASA, when they pass a bill at all, are just seen as making suggestions, rather than passing a law.
Part of the problem is that, while almost no one in Congress actually likes the Obama space plan, members are somewhat uncertain as to how to proceed. Alan Mollohan, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, does not particularly like Constellation either.
In his opening statement, Mollohan said:
“The program of record is fiscally unsustainable and will not serve the purpose of preserving this Nation’s leadership role in space exploration. It is time to move forward with a human space program that will fulfill the aspirations of a great nation, but that also has well-defined and realistic costs and goals. Until that program is defined through an enacted authorization, this Subcommittee has no business in appropriating even more funding for uncertain program outcomes. Accordingly, this bill makes the funding for Human Space Exploration available only after the enactment of such authorization legislation.”
Translated, that means that, for Constellation (the program of record) to work, Congress would have to appropriate adequate funding, which Mollohan is disinclined to do. But, not having any enthusiasm for the Obama space plan, Mollohan is passing the hot potato as to what NASA should do instead to the authorizers in the House Science and Technology Committee.
All of this is likely moot. Congress is not likely to pass any of the spending bills before the election or even during the current Congress. Congress will likely keep the government, including NASA, going with a continuing resolution, funding the first few months of fiscal year 2011 at 2010 levels. The first order of business for the next Congress will be to sort things out and pass some kind of spending bill, likely an omnibus bill covering all discretionary spending, for the rest of the fiscal year.
The interesting aspect of this is that the next Congress is going to be very different indeed, likely controlled by Republicans. A Republican Congress is not likely to have any support for the Obama space plan. On the other hand, such a Congress will be pledged to cut spending in most accounts. Will NASA be seen as a national security asset, worthy of being funded at a higher level, as many Republicans maintain, or will the space agency be cut back along with most of the rest, leaving NASA and space exploration on life support until the next president can determine a new policy? And, will President Obama decide to pursue a veto strategy to try to ram through his space plan anyway? Or, will he see the writing on the wall, and seek accommodation and compromise?
The future of the civil space program awaits the answers to these questions.
House spending panel punts on NASA policy, Mike Matthews, Orlando Sentinel, June 29th, 2010
Opening Statement of Chairman Alan B. Mollohan, Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, June 29th, 2010