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Casey DreierNovember 5, 2014

The Consequences of the 2014 Midterm Elections for NASA

Some priority shifts, but there is unlikely to be a major change the direction of the space program

The Republican party won a significant majority in the U.S. Senate yesterday, reshuffling the balance of power in Congress starting next year. As the new majority, Republican members will assume chairmanship of crucial committees and subcommittees which write the legislation governing NASA in the Senate. Thankfully, due to the generally good working relationship between the two parties on space issues, I don’t think there will be any significant shifts in space policy over the next two years, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some consequences.

U.S. Capitol Building

Andy Withers

U.S. Capitol Building

So let’s speculate! Here are some of my predictions for what happens with a Republican-led Senate:

  1. A Farewell to ARM?
    I think the biggest consequences relate to NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM). It was never very popular to begin with, gaining only tepid support from Democrats in the Senate, but Republicans have been deeply skeptical of the proposal, particularly in the House. ARM is strongly tied to the Obama Administration, which does it no favors these days, and the program has moved slowly, preventing it from building much structural or monetary momentum. Even the White House has not shown much desire to request funding for it. I would expect any authorization and appropriations bills to forbid funding this program in the future, matching legislation we’ve already seen out of the House. The White House will have much bigger fights on its hands than whether or not NASA captures and redirects an asteroid, so don’t expect too much pushback on that front. I have a hard time seeing how ARM moves forward in this political climate.

  2. The Space Launch System Will See Increased Funding
    Senator Richard Shelby will assume chairmanship of the Senate’s full appropriations committee will likely assume chairmanship of the Senate's Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee which covers NASA. (SpaceNews reports that Shelby may seek chairmanship of the Senate's Banking committee instead of the full appropriations committee). Shelby fights hard for Alabama and Marshall Space Flight Center, which is the epicenter of the SLS program. In the 2015 NASA budget, the Senate appropriated $1.6 billion for SLS, a full $224 million more than requested by the White House—and that was with Shelby a member of the minority. As the Chairman of both committees, Shelby will have even more ability to support the SLS and its related human spaceflight programs.

  3. NASA as a Whole Will Suffer a Budget Cut
    Despite NASA being a generally popular, bipartisan affair, its funding is discretionary, and discretionary spending has been a target of Republicans for years. In an effort to reduce the deficit, and with tax increases anathema to the party, the only likely target for cuts will be the government’s discretionary spending. I doubt NASA will be targeted specifically, but there will be less money to go around. Combine that with the possible return of the sequester in 2016, and the 2020 census (paid for out of the same pot as NASA) and you have a significant number of obstacles lining up against the space program’s budget (as well as all basic R&D funding in the United States).

    There’s also Ted Cruz of Texas, a popular figure among the conservative base and the architect of the government shutdown of 2013. He will likely assume chairmanship of the Senate’s Space and Science subcommittee, which sets policy and funding caps for NASA via regular authorization bills. In 2013 during an attempt to pass a new authorization Bill for NASA, all of the Republicans on this committee voted to authorize top-level spending caps for NASA that matched those of the sequester. This is not required by the Budget Control Act, and authorized spending levels are rarely matched by appropriators anyway. But with a Presidential election coming in 2016, any authorization above levels prescribed in the Budget Control Act will be unlikely.

  4. Planetary Science Will See Better Fortunes
    Planetary science has bipartisan, bicameral support, no controversial proposals, and a clear direction and set of goals defined by the scientific community. Add in the unique utilization capability of the SLS for outer planet planetary missions (helping to keep a regular cadence of launches) and you have a potent argument for increased and steady funding for this productive division within NASA.

All of these apply to the next Congress, which doesn’t convene until January of next year. In the meantime, we have a lame duck session through December that will grapple with some important issues remaining from this legislative year: namely the 2015 NASA budget and authorization.

The U.S. budget has remained in limbo in the Senate since the summer. The government is operating on a two-month temporary budget extension that expires in December. So either the current, Democratically-controlled Senate will pass a budget within the next six weeks that gets approval by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, or everyone punts until next year, which would allow the Republicans in the Senate to exercise more control. No one knows yet what will happen—even those working in Congress. My instincts tell me that we won’t have a 2015 budget until next year, but I won’t go so far as to make any predictions.

The other interesting outcome is the Authorization bill, which sets NASA’s priorities and top-line spending caps. The House passed a version by a very large, bipartisan majority earlier this year. The Senate has been working on its own version, but has not yet released it to the public or for a vote. With very few remaining work days in the Senate, plus the added temptation to wait until the Republicans are in the majority, I have little hope that an actual authorization will be passed in to law before the end of the year.

Again, there is unlikely to be any wholesale shift in the direction of NASA, despite the change in the Senate. There will be some adjustments in priorities, but overall the space agency will likely continue on its current path. This is fortunate, and a real testament to the bipartisan support for space exploration. While NASA will likely see less money, this will be an effect, rather than a cause, of larger political pressures. It’s along for the ride, though with strong proponents like Shelby in the Senate and Lamar Smith in the House, I think NASA will remain strong.

So what impact do you think the election will have on NASA? Share your opinions in the comment section below.

Read more: FY2015 NASA Budget, Explaining Policy, opinion, Space Policy

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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