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House Debates and Passes FY2016 Funding Bill for NASA, NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jun-2015
Updated: 03-Jun-2015 08:07 PM

This article is updated throughout to integrate the congressional action on June 2 and June 3.

The House of Representatives passed the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) on June 3, 2015 after a marathon debate.  The bill funds NASA and NOAA among other departments and agencies.  No amendments were adopted affecting the House Appropriations Committee's recommendations for NASA or for NOAA's satellite programs, though several were considered.

NASA.  No amendments were offered specifically to the NASA section of the bill.  House Appropriations CJS subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), however, engaged in colloquies with three Members to air their interests in adding money to the committee's recommendations for commercial crew and Orion.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents Johnson Space Center, argued for more commercial crew funding.  The bill cuts $244 million from the $1.244 billion request.  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Ed Perlmultter (D-CO) urged more funding for Orion.  Posey represents Kennedy Space Center.  Perlmutter's district is near Denver where Lockheed Martin Space Systems is headquartered.  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion.  The bill provides the same amount as requested by the Obama Administration, $1.096 billion. 

Culberson responded to them, as he had earlier in an exchange about NASA's science programs, that if more money becomes available as the appropriations process plays out, he will try to "fill the holes" in NASA's budget.  He is an avid supporter of NASA, but had a fixed amount of money to spend on the agencies under his subcommittee's purview.  House Republicans are insisting that non-defense funding stay within budget caps agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act  (BCA).  Under those circumstances, the fact that the bill provides the same total for NASA as the President requested, $18.529 billion, which is a $519 million increase over current spending, is no small feat.  The bill allocates the money differently than the Administration proposed, however, with a substantial increase above the request for the Space Launch System, for example, and a steep cut to the request for earth science.  (See SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request for more details on the committee's recommendations.)

Engaging in a colloquy is one mechanism for Members to engage in a dialogue to express their points of view publicly.  They are non-binding discussions.  A Babin amendment was published in the Congressional Record that would have reduced NASA's science budget by $103.7 million and added $67 million for Orion, but he chose not to offer it today, settling for the colloquy and arguing in favor of commercial crew rather than Orion.

One of the more interesting exchanges took place between Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Culberson.  Farr spoke in favor of a Bonamici (D-OR) amendment that would have provided an additional $21.6 million for ocean acidification research.  The Administration requested $30 million, but the committee approved only $8.4 million.  Farr wondered why funding for protecting Earth's oceans was cut while the committee added $110 million above the request for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Culberson, one of the strongest congressional supporters for a Europa mission, responded that oceans on Earth are important, but investigating Europa is even more important because of the possibility of finding life there.  The amendment was withdrawn.

Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) wanted to eliminate all funding for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).  It was not aimed specifically at NASA, but NASA is one of the agencies that has funded EPSCoR for decades.  NASA's FY2016 request is $9 million, half of what it received in FY2015.  The House Appropriations Committee recommended $18 million, keeping it at the FY2015 level.  Culberson and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) argued against the amendment, which was defeated by voice vote on June 2 and by recorded vote (195-232) on June 3.  

NOAA Satellite Programs.  Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) offered an amendment to restore funding for NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program.  The committee zeroed the $380 million request to begin the PFO program to build the next two Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites, JPSS 3 and 4.  Culberson reserved a point of order against the amendment and Bonamici conceded that she had not identified offsets for the money, and withdrew it.  Funding cannot be added unless it is offset by a commensurate cut elsewhere in the bill. (See SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2016 budget request for satellite programs for more information on the committee's recommendations.)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) offered an amendment to allocate $9 million to fund a pilot program for commercial space-based weather data that was authorized in the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act that passed the House last month.  He withdrew the amendment after Culberson promised to work to add the money in conference with the Senate.

Proposed Across-the-Board Cuts.  Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) sought a one percent across-the-board cut to everything in the bill (with a few exceptions).  Culberson argued strongly against the amendment in part because of the harm it would do to NASA.  The amendment was defeated by a voice vote on June 2 and by a recorded vote (168-257) on June 3.

Another amendment to make an even greater across-the-board cut -- 2.48 percent -- was offered by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) on June 3.  Culberson similarly argued against that amendment, saying it would cut NASA by $450 million for example.  Nonetheless it was initially approved by voice vote.  Culberson asked for a recorded vote, however, and that time it failed on a 134-290 vote.

Final Passage and Next Steps.   The bill passed the House on June 3 by a vote of 242-183. Passage came after a 12-hour marathon session that began about 2:00 pm on June 2 and lasted until 2:00 am ET on June 3, then resumed around 2:00 pm ET on June 3 and concluded 5 hours later.

After all that effort, the bill's future is not clear.  President Obama threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons including several objections to the committee's recommendations on NASA and NOAA that were not resolved during the amendment process.  Indeed, only 12 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.  In total, 230 Republicans and 12 Democrats voted yes, while 10 Republicans and 173 Democrats voted no.  Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the CJS subcommittee, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), top Democrat on the full Appropriations Commtitee, both voted no.

Culberson himself repeatedly told colleagues during the debate that he hopes that more money will be available as the appropriations process moves forward through Senate action and conference negotiations.  

FY2016 appropriations for all of the government are caught up in a dispute between President Obama and congressional Democrats on the one hand, and congressional Republicans -- who control both chambers of Congress -- on the other.  Republicans are holding non-defense spending like that in the CJS bill to budget caps agreed to in the 2011 BCA.   Officially, they are also holding spending for DOD's "base budget" to the BCA caps, but they got around the caps by adding tens of billions in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations -- OCO).   The President and congressional Democrats insist that non-defense programs should also receive more funding.  

Washington pundits think the two parties will reach an accommodation similar to the Ryan-Murray agreement that relaxed the caps for FY2014 and FY2015. Culberson's comments hint that he is hoping for such an outcome.   Until agreement is reached, however, the President has vowed to veto all appropriations bills that hold to the 2011 BCA caps or use "gimmicks" to get around them for defense spending.

A long and difficult appropriations seasons seems inevitable.

Note:  This article, originally entitled "House Debates FY2016 Funding Bill for NASA. NOAA" and published about midnight on June 2, was updated throughout on June 3 to reflect the second day of action and final passage of the bill.


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