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Jason DavisMarch 28, 2018

How the heck did NASA (and science) get such a good 2018 budget?

Last week, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, an Omnibus bill to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2018. (Only six months late! Fiscal year 2018 started back on October 1.) NASA ended up with a crazy-good $20.7 billion—its highest total since 2009, the year President Obama and Congress passed the economic stimulus package.

Not only did NASA get a lot of money, Congress outright rejected most of the White House's controversial cuts. The four Earth science missions targeted for cancellation survived, the education office wasn't axed, and the planetary science division got its biggest budget this century. To quote my colleague, Casey Dreier: "Every Planetary Society member should be elated with this news." He's not exaggerating!

And it wasn't just NASA that scored big. Just look at this breakdown of federal science funding: It's stunning. Many of the agencies Trump's White House wanted to cut got increases instead. And ones that didn't get increases, like NOAA and the EPA, at least managed to avoid proposed cuts. Heck, the budget even gives the National Science Foundation three new ocean research vessels!

When the White House's 2018 budget proposal came out, it was seen as nothing less than a War On Science. The question was: Would a Republican-held Congress go along with the plan? There is a well-documented history of Republican disdain toward regulatory agencies like the EPA, and the climate change research conducted by programs like NASA's Earth science division. Trump gave the GOP a big chance to dramatically scale back some of these programs.

But a year later, none of that came true. In fact, the reverse occurred: This budget matches or exceeds many of the requests the Obama administration made during its final year in office.

So how did it happen?

Defense spending opened the door for non-defense spending

The government has, until now, been limited on defense spending due to across-the-board caps enacted during the Obama administration. Trump and many defense-oriented Republicans wanted those caps removed. The same 2018 budget request that proposed gutting all those science agencies also asked for a 9.4 percent increase in defense spending, to $603 billion. Some members of Congress, like Arizona Senator John McCain, pushed for even more.

But in order to increase the defense budget, Congress needed to raise those spending caps, and also increase the debt ceiling. And Republicans don't have enough of a majority to break a filibuster, so they need the Democrats' help. Democrats, in turn, insisted that if caps were raised for defense, they had to be raised for non-defense as well. This led to a $300 billion, two-year debt ceiling and spending cap deal passed in February, with roughly $165 billion allocated to defense and $131 billion  allocated to non-defense. After a month and a half of deciding how to spend that extra money, Congress passed a final 2018 Omnibus deal last week, and Trump signed it.

Fiscal conservatives were livid at this near-parity between defense and non-defense spending. The conservative Heritage Foundation was strongly against it, the National Review called it an embarrassment and disgrace, and in one of the more colorful Republican takes, Louisiana Senator John Kennedy called it "a Great Dane-sized whiz down the leg of every taxpayer."

Voters don't care about debt

Why would Trump and Republicans put themselves in a situation where they had to make a deal with Democrats and open a new flood of spending? After all, the GOP party platform says having a large national debt "is the path to bankrupting the next generation," and advocates for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget!

Historically, the party that's out of power tends to be the party that cares more about debt. Furthermore, voters don't really care about debt, either. A recent Pew survey showed just 48 percent of respondents felt the federal deficit was a top priority for lawmakers, down from 72 percent during the Obama administration. The deficit ranked fourteenth in voters' top issues currently facing government, far behind other concerns like jobs, terrorism, and education.

This lack of voter concern certainly explains other deficit-busting moves, such as the GOP tax overhaul, which is estimated to add $1.8 trillion to the national debt over the next ten years. If research shows tax cuts are more appealing to voters than lowering the debt, it makes sense that Republicans would choose tax cuts.

Why buck Trump's science cuts?

But that still doesn't explain why Republicans and Democrats alike bucked so many of Trump's proposed science cuts.

First of all, it sounds like the Trump administration wasn't watching Congress closely to make sure all its budget priorities were enacted. An Atlantic article by Marina Koren provides some insight on this by AAAS policy expert Matt Hourihan, who said that unlike the Obama and Bush administrations, Trump's White House doesn't get involved in the nuts and bolts of congressional committees and subcommittees. That's likely to their loss—these committees are where the real wheeling and dealing occurs.

Furthermore, Hourihan said that when Congress historically has extra financial wiggle room, they tend to fund science programs, "regardless of whoever's in the White House and whatever they propose."

There are also district-level interests to consider. Members of Congress are protective of programs important to the regions they represent. Even before the spending cap deal, there were signs a number of Trump's science cuts would be rejected.

Take, for instance, the National Institutes of Health. The White House wanted to cut the NIH budget by 22 percent. But Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, championed a Senate bill that increased NIH funding instead. Why? Because Missouri receives more than half a billion dollars in NIH funding annually, and Blunt's bill supported other priorities for Missourians: rural healthcare, combating the opioid epidemic, and making college more affordable. Blunt was in a position to do all this because he chairs the subcommittee that sets the NIH budget. In the final Omnibus bill, the NIH received $37 billion—an 8.3 percent increase rather than a 22 percent cut.

Bringing it back to NASA: During House and Senate hearings in June, there was bipartisan opposition to the White House's proposal to cut the education department, especially from representatives of rural states like Kentucky and West Virginia served by those programs. Congress easily restored the program.

The four Earth science missions the White House wanted to cancel were an interesting case to watch. During House hearings, only Democrats objected. But during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the Republican known for his staunch support of the Space Launch System, appeared neutral, and borderline unsupportive, on the topic of Earth science cuts.

Shelby's Democratic counterpart in this subcommittee used to be now-retired Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who probably would have defended the Earth science missions because two are operated by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Mikulski's replacement, Democrat Chris Van Hollen, now serves on that same subcommittee. Democrats can filibuster appropriations bills, so Shelby may have respected the fact that funding those four missions was a top priority for his colleagues across the aisle.

Whatever the reason, the Senate's NASA funding bill restored the Earth science missions. Later, during Omnibus negotiations, Van Hollen again worked to ensure they stayed alive.

President Trump, who considers dealmaking an art form, was not happy to sign the Omnibus bill that rejected so many of his priorities. He declared he "would never sign a bill like this again," and called on Congress to give him line-item veto power or change the filibuster rules so a simple majority vote can pass future bills.

Together, the tax overhaul and spending increases comprise the largest financial stimulus since the actual stimulus bill of 2009. That stimulus came during the worst recession in a century, whereas the Trump administration's actions come during a time of peak employment. This could lead to a financial sugar rush, bolstering the economy through the mid-term elections but, ironically, leading to a recession around the time of the next presidential election.

February's debt ceiling and spending cap deal puts in place a broad spending plan for fiscal year 2019. But the specifics of that deal may wind up waiting until after the mid-term elections. How NASA and America's science agencies fare next is still hard to predict.

Read more: Space Policy, 1 FY2018 NASA Budget

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Jason Davis

Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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