Congress has made good progress so far this year in moving the annual appropriations bills that fund the government. However, a looming budget battle over the sequestration and budget caps threaten to sideline progress until Congress and the White House reach agreement. Here’s the current situation.
On June 11, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $51.1 billion Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 on a 27–3 vote. NASA, which falls within CJS, would get $18.29 billion in this bill, or roughly $280 million more than the agency was funded in FY 2015.
The FY 2016 White House budget proposal for NASA, released in February, requested $18.529 billion. That sum is nearly $520 million more than Congress provided to NASA in FY 2015, and roughly $240 million more than the proposed FY 2016 Senate Committee appropriation. So while the Senate bill represents a potential increase in NASA’s budget from last year, it’s still below what NASA says it needs to complete all of its assigned missions. It is also worth noting that NASA’s request for FY 2016 is up significantly from its FY 2015 request of $17.461 billion.
The House of Representatives passed its own FY2016 CJS appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) on June 3, which approved the full $18.529 billion for NASA but lowered funding from some programs, including Earth science, commercial crew, and space technology, while adding funds to the Space Launch System, astrophysics, and planetary science.
NASA Budget by directorate
FY16 House Appropriation
FY16 Senate Committee Appropriation
Aeronautics and Space Technology
Safety, Security, and Mission Services
How Does This Affect Planetary Exploration?
The Senate’s proposed level of funding for planetary science, at $1.321 billion, is about $40 million below the President’s request and $179 million below the $1.5 billion advocated by The Planetary Society. It’s not yet clear exactly where the Senate cut funds, but NASA’s request already assumed ending extended mission funding for the Mars Exploration and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter projects, so the Senate cuts are presumably elsewhere.
The Senate Committee’s bill includes funding for the Mars 2020 rover, the OSIRIS REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, and an additional $5 million for the New Frontiers program, aimed at speeding up NASA’s next round of medium-class mission proposals from the current date of February 1, 2016. The Committee report also supports NASA’s cancelled Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator research and development project, but the bill does not appear to provide any additional funding for it.
In contrast to the Senate proposal, the House Appropriations bill cut Earth science by more than $260 million from the President’s request and increased planetary science by nearly $200 million. The House bill included $140 million for a Europa mission, $110 million above NASA’s request. Casey Dreier, The Planetary Society’s director of Advocacy, provided a deeper look into the House bill in a recent post. Neither the Senate bill nor the report specified funding for the Europa mission, though the Senate report does endorse the mission with instructions for NASA to launch it on the Space Launch System.
One thing to keep in mind when looking at the differences between the House and Senate numbers: these are not final numbers. The two bills show where the two chambers agree and where there are differences to be worked out. Specifically, the high numbers for planetary science in the House reflect the support of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House CJS Subcommittee, for NASA missions to the outer planets generally and a Europa mission specifically. The stronger numbers for Earth science in the Senate bill reflect the support of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), ranking member of the Senate CJS Subcommittee, who has long been a strong proponent for space science and whose state includes the Goddard Space Flight Center, home to many of NASA’s Earth Science missions.
The differing numbers within space science are the starting point for negotiations between the two Congressional chambers and are probably meant to stake out a strong stance prior to those negotiations while leaving room to offer concessions in trade. This negotiating process is normal – and even healthy – for NASA as long as the agency remains a source of bipartisan support.
NASA Science Budgets
FY16 House Appropriation
FY 16 Senate Committee Appropriation
The next step for the Senate bill is to go to the full Senate for debate. However, it’s not clear when, or even if, the bill will go to the Senate Floor. (The House passed its version of the bill a few weeks ago). While both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have made good progress moving spending bills this year, fundamental disagreements remain over the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). Members of Congress are strongly divided on whether to adjust these caps and provide additional funding for both defense and non-defense programs. Moreover, the Obama Administration has stated it will veto spending bills that adhere to the caps.
Republicans in Congress are proposing to adhere to the budget caps set by the BCA and have proposed to increase military spending by adding funds to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is exempt from the gaps. Many view this as a gimmick to circumvent the caps. Senate Democrats are threatening to hold up all 12 annual spending measures in order to bring Republicans to the negotiating table on this issue.
All of this budget exercise takes place against the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election, and Congress looks likely to drag the battles out into the fall. The Presidential primaries will be running at full steam by then, which should make for heated political rhetoric on budget issues.
If the two parties can’t find agreement on the budget by the end of September, we could once again be faced with the possibility of a shutdown of the Federal government. At this point, though, I think a more likely scenario would be for Congress to pass a continuing resolution, basically keeping the government running at last year’s funding levels until a deal is reached. This is certainly not an optimal solution. The Planetary Society will continue to advocate for increases to NASA’s budget – and the planetary portion of that budget – so that we can continue an amazing program of exploration of our solar system and beyond.