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GAO Compliments Progress on Export Controls, Identifies Continuing Challenges

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) latest report on the U.S. export control system congratulates agencies for changes already made in reducing the time needed to process licenses and coordinating across multiple agencies, but cautions that challenges remain.

The report makes no new recommendations, but assesses how agencies responded to previous GAO advice. Among the remaining challenges it identifies are developing metrics for determining the effectiveness of the arms export control system, reaching interagency agreement on which items need to be controlled, and obtaining congressional approval for implementing reforms.

One particularly interesting statistic GAO cites is that in September 2010, the State Department had an average processing time of 15 calendar days for export control licenses, down from 43 days in 2006. Also, the number of pending cases is down to 10,000 from 3,500 even though the number of applications has grown by 20 percent annually.

Congressional Endgame Still Unclear

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In a headline this morning, the National Journal (subscription required) cries "Omnibus Rhetoric Hints at Government Shutdown."

While Democrats in the House apparently have resigned themselves to passage of President Obama's tax deal with Senate Republicans, the endgame for the FY2011 appropriations process remains murky. The House passed a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) last week to replace the current CR, which expires Saturday at midnight, but Senate Democrats want to pass an omnibus appropriations bill that contains all 12 of the regular appropriations bills instead. The Senate omnibus bill totals $1.108 billion compared with $1.089 in the House CR. The dollar difference is not nearly as controversial as the fact that the Senate bill contains $2.2 billion in earmarks while the House bill has none.

Earmarks have become a symbol of wasteful government spending and all that is wrong in Washington. Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to force an end to the practice, where members of Congress designate funding for special projects in their home states or districts. But some want that ban to start next year, not this year There's the rub. Republican Senators are among those who have millions of dollars in earmarks in the Senate omnibus bill. Politico reports that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got $112 million in earmarks, for example. According to Politico, the Senator with the biggest earmark total is Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, with $560 million. Top Democrats also fared well according to Politico. For example, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has $421 million in earmarks and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has $252 million.

What does all that mean? Setting aside who got how much for their home states, the key point is whether objections by some in the Senate and many in the House will derail the omnibus bill, or delay its passage beyond the expiration of the current CR. The National Journal reports that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is considering whether to force the entire 1,900 page bill to be read aloud during Senate consideration of the legislation. That would take an estimated 50 hours, which could be completed by Saturday, followed by debate on the bill. Final passage might not occur until Tuesday, after which it would have to go to the House for consideration. With the current CR expiring on Saturday at midnight, if another temporary CR is not passed, the government would shut down, sparking the National Journal headline.

Like the final minute of a football game, anything can happen at the end of a Congress. It is only Thursday and there is plenty of time for compromises to be struck. Closing down the government does not appear to be in the best interest of either political party and as the tax bill demonstrates, Washington politicans can decide to find solutions even though individual pieces may be very difficult to swallow.

Three New ISS Crew Members Blast Off

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Russia's Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft lifted off as scheduled at 2:09 pm EST from Kazakhstan carrying three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, American Catherine "Cady" Coleman and Italian Paolo Nespoli are expected to dock with the ISS on Friday at 3:12 pm EST. They will join the three ISS crew members already aboard: American Scott Kelly and Russians Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka. To keep up with ISS comings and goings, check NASA's ISS website.

Senator Inouye Introduces Omnibus Appropriations Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

As expected, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) today introduced a FY2011 omnibus appropriations bill that he hopes will replace the year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House last week. It contains the Senate versions of all 12 regular appropriations bills. The National Journal (subscription required) cites Sen. Inouye as saying that he believes he has the votes needed to get it passed by the Senate. It then would have to be passed by the House, however, as the clock ticks down to expiration of the current CR. That law expires on Saturday, December 18. If no new legislation is passed by then, the government would have to shut down.

The Senate omnibus bill contains $1.108 trillion in federal spending for FY2011, compared to $1.089 trillion in the House bill. The Senate bill contains congressionally directed spending items -- earmarks -- while the House bill does not.

The total amount for NASA is the same in both bills, $18.9 billion, and the Senate version generally follows the House bill. A committee summary of the Commerce-Justice-Science portion of the bill that includes NASA says that it provides $825 million for an additional space shuttle flight, however that language does not seem to be in the bill itself. Also, the committee summary says that $1.2 billion is provided for the "Orion multipurpose crew vehicle" while the bill language does not specify Orion. Both the House and Senate bills specify that the new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle must have an initial lift capability of 130 tons.

Commercial Crew, Climate Change Research Top Concerns of New House Committee Chairman

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), incoming chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, identified commercial crew and climate change research as key space issues in an interview with the Dallas Morning News.

Rep. Hall's skepticism about the ability of commercial companies like SpaceX to reliably and safely take over the government's role in sending people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) is no secret. During hearings held by the committee in 2010, where he currently is the ranking Republican, Rep. Hall made clear that he did not think the time was right to turn that task completely over to the private sector. In his comments to the Dallas Morning News, he was quoted as saying: "I do have [concerns] because it's so important and it's so dangerous and it's so subject to failure. ... I want to be assured that they're not going to run out of money."

NASA's research on climate change was a target of congressional concern the last time Republicans were in control, and it appears that it will be again. The newspaper refers to Rep. Hall as an "unconditional champion of fossil fuels," adding that he intends to appoint Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) as chairman of the investigations and oversight (I&O) subcommittee.

Rep. Sensenbrenner has a long background in Congress dealing with climate change issues and is deeply skeptical of the extent to which it is human-induced. A past chairman of what was then called the House Science Committee, he serves as ranking member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in the current Congress. The Republicans have indicated that committee will not continue into the 112th Congress. If he does take the chair of the I&O subcommittee, he will have a new forum to continue that pursuit.

During committee markup of the 2010 NASA authorization bill earlier this year, Rep. Sensenbrenner successfully attached a "Climategate" amendment that would have required NASA to report to Congress on the extent to which its temperature measurements overlap with records of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and whether those records therefore were compromised. That version of the bill did not pass, but the East Anglia emails that were illegally made public and interpreted by some as evidence that climate scientists misrepresented scientific findings are likely to be a focus of his investigations. Rep. Hall agrees that looking deeply into climate change issues is important, telling the Dallas Morning News that "I'm interested in the truth on that....There are a lot of people who believe that a lot of decisions were made on the false statements of others."

NASA Names New Chief Scientist

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Dr. Waleed Abdalati is NASA's new chief scientist. He will take on his new role on January 3, 2011.

Abdalati currently is Director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder and an associate professor in the University's geography department. His speciality is polar ice cover and he has worked at NASA in various capacities in the past.

NASA says that as chief scientist he will represent all NASA's scientific endeavors and ensure they "are aligned with and fulfill the Administrator's science objectives. He will advocate for NASA science in the context of those broader government science agendas and work closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget."

More X-37B Photos

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM) has posted more nifty photos of the X-37B after its return from orbit, courtesy of Boeing.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of December 13-17, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The NRC meeting on orbital debris for Dec. 13-15 has been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. See our calendar on the right menu for more details or click the links below.

During the Week

This week is supposed to be the final week of the 111th Congress, though much work remains to be done. First and foremost is providing funding for the government after the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 18. The House passed a new CR last week to fund the government through the rest of FY2011. Senate Appropriations Chairman Inouye (D-HI) at last report still wanted to try and insert in lieu of the House provisions an omnibus package of all 12 regular appropriations bills. Some Senate Republicans reportedly want to substitute a shorter-term CR that would last only until perhaps February. NASA did quite well -- all things considered -- in the House-passed CR, but it is too early for anyone to celebrate yet.

The need to pass a new CR (or an omnibus) is indisputable, but Senate Republicans are insisting that they will not allow any legislation to be brought up until the tax deal President Obama struck with them is passed. Thus, the first order of business for the Senate on Monday is that tax package. Many Democrats are very unhappy with it, but rumors are that it will pass the Senate. What will happen in the House is more problematic. The House Democratic Caucus made it clear that House Democrats do not support the deal, but the White House is trying hard to convince them that it is the best the Democratic Party can get to ensure that taxes on lower and middle income families don't go up next year. President Obama has brought in former President Bill Clinton to help sell it.

The last week of any Congress in recent memory has been chaotic, and it often seems that agreement will never be reached in time, but somehow they always seem to work something out. Thus, one can anticipate chaos throughout the week, and while there is always a chance that agreement will not be reached and the government would have to shut down at midnight on December 18, such an outcome does not appear to be in either party's best interest.

Monday, December 13

Monday-Wednesday, December 13-15

Monday-Friday, December 13-17

Wednesday, December 15

President Announces Export Control Reform Implementation Steps

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

President Obama announced the first implementation steps in his drive to reform the U.S. export control system today.

The announcement was made at a meeting of the President's Export Council. According to the White House press release, the main features of today's implementation steps are the following:

The publication of a draft rule setting out the criteria and procedures to be used in determining whether a product is subject to export controls.
The application of these criteria to one category of items (Category VII: Tanks and Military Vehicles), to be seen as an example of how the new policies would apply.
The publication of a draft rule specifying what licensing policies will apply to products subject to export controls.

The Administration is seeking public comment on the draft rules.

House Passes Year-Long CR, NASA Would Get $18.9 Billion

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) yesterday that would fund the government through September 30, 2011, the end of the current fiscal year.

CR's typically extend an agency's existing budget for a certain period of time, but the version passed yesterday by the House is different. While the total amount of funding in the bill, $1.09 trillion, is the same as the current level according to Politico, NASA's budget, for example, would rise from its FY2010 level, though is still less than the request. The CR also spells out in some detail how NASA is to spend the money, not unlike a traditional appropriations measure.

Instead of being held at its FY2010 level of $18.7 billion, NASA would get $18.93 billion. That is just shy of the $19.00 billion requested by the President.

Funds are specifically provided for the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle ($1.2 billion), and "not less than" $250 million for commercial crew, $300 million for commercial cargo, and $1.8 billion for a heavy lift launch system that has an initial lift capability of not less than 130 tons. Technology funds that were in the budget request under the aeronautics account (for low TRL technology development supported by Bobby Braun's office) and under the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate account are combined; a total of $559 million is provided. The bill also lifts the restrictions that were in the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act against cancelling the Constellation program or initiating a new program until Congress provided further direction.

The text of the legislation is available on the House Appropriations Committee's website. The NASA provisions are in Sec. 2206.

The bill still must pass the Senate. Although Senator Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee may try to replace it with an omnibus appropriations measure, expectations are low that he will succeed. The impact on the deficit of President Obama's deal with Republicans on extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and exempting estates of over $5 million from more of the estate tax, plus extending unemployment benefits, is seen as dooming any effort for an omnibus.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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