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Casey DreierApril 26, 2016

The Senate Just Proposed to Slash Planetary Science Funding

But I'm not worrying—yet

Last week, the Senate subcommittee responsible for writing NASA’s annual budget released their draft funding bill for 2017. It would provide $19.3 billion for NASA—about $300 million more than proposed by the President and essentially equal to what Congress provided to NASA last year.

The subcommittee approved the bill, which was then approved by full committee just days later. The bill is now supposed to move to the full Senate for a vote, though we don’t know when—or even if—that will happen. It’s a presidential election year, after all.

The equivalent subcommittee in the House of Representatives has yet to release a draft of their own. I’ve previously discussed how Congress writes NASA’s budget in an episode of The Space Advocate, and if you remember the graphic from that video, last week’s actions in the Senate mean we’ve made it this far in the overall process:

Current Status of NASA's 2017 Funding Bills
Current Status of NASA's 2017 Funding Bills
As of April 25th, 2016.

Both Jeff Foust at SpaceNews and Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline provide good breakdowns of what’s in the draft bill, so I won’t repeat much of them here (beyond mentioning that yes, Commercial Crew would get full funding in bill for only the second time in recent history, and yes, the Space Launch System would again see a huge increase). Overall, the bill is consistent with the priorities the Senate has funded in the past few years.

I do want to talk about the Planetary Science number, though.

The President proposed $1.53 billion for the Planetary Science Division in 2017, finally reaching the Society’s proposed minimum after years of cuts (though it’s still a cut from last year).

The Senate, however, proposes to provide only $1.36 billion for Planetary Science. This cut, if enacted, would be a severe $270 million cut from 2016.

 

2016 Final

President 2017

Senate 2017

Planetary Science

$1.63 billion

$1.52 billion

$1.36 billion

But I’m not worrying about that—at least, not yet.

The reason why is that the House appropriations subcommittee has proven itself to be a great defender of planetary science, and they have yet to weigh in. In particular, subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX) is a proven champion of a mission to explore Europa while also supporting Mars exploration and a balanced program of smaller planetary missions.

Even though the Senate and House write their NASA funding bills separately, they eventually need to reconcile their differences in order to pass a final bill into law. So you can read these draft bills as staking out initial negotiating positions in that process. The House’s strong support for Planetary Science means the Senate can lowball their number as a strategic negotiating move, knowing that the House will want to bring that back up. The House can do the same with priorities they know the Senate supports.

Recent history has shown this to be the case. Over the past few years, the Senate has consistently proposed lower numbers for planetary science than the House, yet the House’s higher number has made it into the final budget bill each year.

Of course, if the House chooses to continue to grow the NASA budget with inflation, as we urged Congress to do earlier this year, many of these problems would disappear.

That’s why I’m not worrying yet. Of course, the House still needs to move forward with its own NASA budget bill while managing the deep divisions within the Republican party during an election year.

Should the House release its own draft, there would still be a long road before Congress can pass an agreement to fund the government before October 1st, the start of the next fiscal year, and a mere five weeks before the Presidential election. But they can once again step up and demonstrate their continued support for planetary exploration during that period. If they don't, then I would start to become more concerned about the Senate being the only congressional action on planetary science this year.

Read more: Space Policy, FY2017 NASA Budget

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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