Casey DreierAug 15, 2013

August Advocacy Update: Where We Stand

Four months have passed since the President proposed a budget which would again cut NASA’s planetary exploration program. We asked you to write and call your representatives, donate to our advocacy program, and spread the word to your friends to help reverse this. Has it worked?

In a word: yes!

In more words: yes, but we still have lots of work to do.

I’m going to focus today on the appropriations bills that have moved through Congress. Right now there are two: one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. Appropriations bills appropriate funding to federal agencies as part of the yearly budgeting process. They apply to the upcoming fiscal year: October 1st, 2013 - September 30th, 2014.

The U.S. federal government is so big that Congress breaks the budgeting responsibility into into chunks and spreads it around twelve different subcommittees. One subcommittee works on Energy and Water funding, another focuses on Defense, etc. The one we’re concerned about is the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee, whose completely logical grouping of agencies includes NASA.

Both the House and Senate provided $100 million more for Planetary Science than the White House requested. That’s good. Really good. The focused, consistent, and uniform advocacy performed by you, the Society, and our allies in the scientific community was crucial to this.

Why am I talking about congressional committees? Because these subcommittees (and their staff) write the first drafts of appropriations bills before they go before the full Congress. Convincing the subcommittee that Planetary Science funding is woefully small and they should do something about it is a lot easier before they write their bill than trying to pass an amendment through the entire House or Senate.

And let’s be honest here: Planetary Science is not a big deal, budget-wise. We’re talking about roughly a billion dollars out of a three trillion dollar federal budget. It doesn’t get a lot of attention from most representatives in Congress. However, the staff members and individual representatives on the CJS subcommittee are much more aware of it and NASA issues in general.

This is why the Planetary Society focuses its efforts on representatives that sit on the CJS appropriations subcommittees; they have the most influence during the earliest steps in the funding process. Decisions they make early on in the process tend to ride through to the end. This is why your donations have been so crucial: we've had the financial resources to make five different trips out to Washington, D.C. in the first half of the year to meet with representatives in this and other important committees. Our part-time lobbyist has also been busy working within the financial constraints we give him.

Both CJS subcommittees have passed their bills this year, providing some good news for Planetary Science and mixed news for NASA as a whole.

Here’s the relevant breakdown, the White House column is the President’s proposed budget. All numbers are in millions:

 White HouseHouse CJSSenate CJS
Planetary Science$1,218.00$1,315.00$1,317.60
Total NASA$17,715.40$16,598.30$18,010.30

Note that both the House and Senate provided $100 million more for Planetary Science than the White House requested. That’s good. Really good. We’re crossing party lines here and we’re seeing the number move in the right direction. This was not inevitable. The focused, consistent, and uniform advocacy performed by you, the Society, and our allies in the scientific community was crucial to this.

You’ll notice that the top-line levels for NASA differ quite a bit between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The House assumes the sequester, the across-the-board cuts to nearly all federal programs, applies to their budgeting. The Senate does not. That’s going to be a hard hurdle to overcome. The Senate and House must each pass their full budgets, then reconcile the differences, and then pass the reconciled version before the next fiscal year starts in October. We're hoping that the final number will be closer to the Senate's $18 billion, NASA would be in very bad straights with the House's budget, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be the smallest NASA budget in nearly 30 years.

Very few people believe that Congress will pass a budget in time. Many expect a “continuing resolution,” essentially a stop-gap measure that continues the previous year’s budget, to be passed instead. A government shutdown is possible, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. This is essentially where we were stuck last year. A budget wasn’t passed until late March.

Both houses of Congress have made the first step towards maintaining NASA’s planetary exploration program. There is strong agreement by both Republicans and Democrats that this program is important, and that the White House is undermining NASA’s most visible and successful division.

So this is good. It’s not spectacular. The number we desperately need for Planetary Science is still $1.5 billion. At that level you could support the Mars 2020 rover and the Europa Clipper mission, as well as good number of smaller missions and research. $1.3 billion helps the Mars 2020 mission along, but can’t support Europa at the same time, even though the House’s version of this bill throws $80 million towards continued mission prep.

Political storms await us. Planetary science funding will be along for the ride, and we have no choice but to wait out the worst of it and hope to emerge out on the other side, ready to explore the unknown out there despite the turmoil down here.

Additional note: Thank you again to every one of you who wrote your representatives or the President about this. Extra special thanks to those who were able to donate to our advocacy program. If you haven't written, write! It still can make a difference. So can donating.

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