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Final FY2017 Appropriations Bill Gives NASA Big Boost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017
Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM

Over the weekend, congressional leaders agreed on a final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.  NASA would be funded at $19.653 billion, a substantial increase over the amount requested last year by President Obama and somewhat more than approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The recommendations approved by the committees were never finalized by Congress last year.  In the intervening months, the committees obviously found a way to direct even more funding to the space agency.

The bill, H.R. 244 as amended, still must pass the House and Senate, but key members of both chambers clearly believe they have the votes to do so.  President Trump would then have to sign it into law.  Presumably congressional leaders have coordinated with the White House to ensure that happens even though the bill does not include elements of the supplemental request Trump sent to Congress in March, such as funding for the border wall with Mexico.  That will be debated as part of the FY2018 appropriations process.

Congress is using H.R. 244 as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originally was on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill as a vehicle for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.

FY2017 is more than half over already.  It began on October 1, 2016.  The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that fund agencies at their FY2016 levels. The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  This new "full year" omnibus appropriations bill is expected to pass the House as early as Wednesday, followed by Senate passage soon thereafter to complete action on the FY2017 budget before that deadline.

This is an omnibus appropriations bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills into one package (the 12th bill, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, is the only one that cleared Congress last year).   The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion, which funds NASA and NOAA, is Division B.

President Obama's FY2017 budget request for NASA was convoluted.  Although NASA budget materials show the request as $19.025 billion, only $18.262 billion was requested from appropriated funds -- the money over which appropriations committees have jurisdiction.  The remaining $763 million comprised $663 million that somehow was supposed to be extracted from the "mandatory" portion of the budget that funds programs like Medicare and Social Security, plus $100 million from a tax Obama wanted to impose on oil companies. The appropriations committees ignored that part of the request and dealt only with the $18.262 billion request for appropriated funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, close to the $19.285 billion Congress provided for NASA in FY2016.   The House Appropriations Committee was more generous, approving $19.508 billion. 

The final bill adds even more, providing a total of $19.653 billion, an increase of  $1.391 billion over Obama's request for appropriated funds. 

Key elements of the funding provided for NASA include the following.  Comparisons to "the request" are to the amounts requested from appropriated funds (i.e., excluding the mythical $763 million).  An updated version of SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA budget fact sheet will be posted soon (available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports").  It includes a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the FY2017 request as it worked its way through the authorization and appropriation processes.

  • Science:  $5.765 billion (the request was $5.303 billion).
    • Earth science: $1.921 billion, including $90 million for PACE and $130.9 million for Landsat 9 (President Trump has proposed cancelling PACE in his FY2018 budget request).  The request was $1.973 billion.
    • Planetary science: $1.846 billion, including $363 million for outer planets of which $275 million is for the Europa mission.  The request was $1.391 billion. 
    • Astrophysics: $750 million, including $105 million for WFIRST, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $98.3 million for Hubble.  The request was $696.5 million.
    • James Webb Space Telescope:  $569.4 million, the same as the request.
    • Heliophysics: $678.5 million.  The request was $673.7 million.
    • Education and Public Outreach:  $37 million to be derived equally from planetary science and astrophysics and administered by the Astrophysics Division (this amount is included in the $750 million for astrophysics, not in addition to it, according to a table in the report accompanying the bill)
  • Aeronautics:  $660 million (the request was $634.5 million).
  • Space Technology:  $686.5 million (the request was $690.6 million), including $35 million for nuclear propulsion, $30 million for small launch capabilities, $35 million for additive manufacturing, $25.718 million for optical communications, and $66.6 million for solar electric propulsion.
  • Exploration:  $4.324 billion (the request was $3.164 billion), including direction that NASA continue to develop advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission but "these activities should not distract from the overarching goal of sending humans to Mars" and $75 million is designated for habitation augmentation activities.  
  • Space Operations: $4.951 billion (the request was $5.076 billion), including the full request of $1.185 billion for commercial crew and "up to" $1.028 billion for commercial cargo.  No further breakdown was provided.
  • Education:  $100 million (the request was $100.1 million), including $18 million for EPSCoR, $40 million for Space Grant, $32 million for MUREP, and $10 million for STEM Education and Accountability Projects (President Trump has proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education in his FY2018 budget request).
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.769 billion (the request was $2.837 billion).
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR): $360.7 million (the request was $419.8 million).
  • Office of Inspector General:  $37.9 million (the request was $38.1 million).

The big winners were planetary exploration and human exploration.  Many other accounts also saw increases of varying magnitude.  Space Operations was the only area of flight programs to get less than requested -- $4.951 billion instead of $5.0976 billion.  Since commercial crew and commercial cargo were funded at their requested levels, the reductions will have to come from other parts of the account such as International Space Station operations or Space and Flight Support.  The $68 million cut to Safety, Security and Mission Services and the $59 million cut to CECR could affect NASA's internal operations.  They fund day-to-day operations and construction projects at NASA's field centers around the country, for example, including cybersecurity activities.

The next step for the omnibus appropriations bill is to get a "rule" from the House Rules Committee spelling out what amendments may be offered (if any) and how much time is allowed for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00 pm ET.   The text of the bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee's website.  The bill will then go the House floor for debate and a vote, then to the Senate, then to the President's desk.  That is all expected to completed before Friday midnight when the existing CR expires.

Congress has been able to be generous to NASA for the past several years because Congress and the Obama White House agreed to relax spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The last agreement relaxed the caps through FY2017.  They return for FY2018.  Whether the Trump Administration and Congress will agree to relax them -- or repeal the law entirely -- remains to be seen.   President Trump asserted in his FY2018 budget blueprint that he had repealed the BCA for defense spending.  He cannot repeal a law; Congress must do that.  In any case, "repealing" only the limits for defense spending while keeping them for non-defense spending (like NASA) would certainly encounter strong resistance in Congress, especially from Democrats.

The point is that the largely happy outcome for NASA in FY2017 may not be a bellwether for FY2018 or future years.  NASA clearly has strong support in Congress, especially from the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate CJS subcommittees -- Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) -- but NASA is just one small part of federal spending, which is deeply affected by debates over tax reform and deficit reduction.  Anything can happen.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill and explanatory statement did not provide details on funding under the Exploration account.  A table in the explanatory statement does specify the following:  Orion, $1.35 billion; SLS, $2.15 billion; Exploration Ground Systems, $429 million, and Exploration R&D, $395 million.


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