A New Budget Deal and a Best Case NASA Budget for 2016
What if everybody wins?
Update 2015-10-30: The Senate has passed the budget deal. It now goes to the President who is expected to sign it into law.
On Wednesday, the House passed a budget deal that provides small increases to federal spending and raises the nation's debt limit through 2017. The Senate appears likely to pass this measure next week. Robert Greenstein at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has an excellent rundown of what's in the deal.
This is potentially very good news for NASA. With an agreement on top-level spending, Congress can focus on filling in the details for funding NASA next year via the normal appropriations process. This will help to avoid the spectre of a full year continuing resolution—a continuation of last year's budget which would have had serious impacts on many NASA missions, particularly planetary exploration. Importantly, it also undoes much of the sequestration cuts and increases overall spending for the non-defense side of the federal government by $25 billion.
Earlier this year, the Senate and the House each proposed bills that included funding for NASA in 2016. The House met the President's proposal to increase funding for the space agency to $18.5 billion, though it prioritized the money differently within the agency, most notably adding funds to the SLS and Planetary Science Division. The Senate came in at $18.3 billion, cutting Planetary Science from the President's relatively low request while increasing Earth Science and the SLS. Commercial Crew was not fully-funded in either bill, and there are many other significant differences between all three proposals, to say the least. Both bills were threatened with a Presidential veto due to their overall adherence to sequestration cuts.
Today's deal (assuming the Senate passes it next week) avoids these cuts, as well as the veto threat. Many more billions of dollars may be available to properly fund the activities of government in 2016. That potentially means more breathing room for the appropriations committees that write the budget legislation when negotiating their priorities.
So we here in the Advocacy team did a quick exercise: what would the best case NASA budget compromise look like for 2016? If one selected the highest funding level proposed for each major program in the budgets released by the Senate, House, and White House, how would that impact NASA's top-line?
Well, an ideal compromise would require a top-line NASA budget of $19.3 billion—only $730 million more than proposed by the House, and a small fraction of the overall spending increases just agreed to by the Congress.
Just think about it: full funding for Commercial Crew; funding to advance the SLS and begin work on the Exploration Upper Stage needed to launch a Europa mission direct to Jupiter and humans to Mars; it would restore the Planetary Science Division to $1.5 billion, securing the continued operation of the Opportunity rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; Earth Science and Astrophysics would both see major increases; and the Space Technology Mission Directorate would be fully funded for the first time in years.
All for a mere 4% above what the House of Representatives has already proposed.
If you account for inflation, $19.3 billion for NASA in 2016 would merely restore the space agency to the funding level it last had in 2011. It would be a big step in addressing the “20-lbs of mission in a 10-lb bag” program currently holding back the nation's goals in space.
Big challenges remain, and much has yet to happen. The Senate needs to pass the agreement. There is also the other political issue of the Planned Parenthood funding (or de-funding) that threatens to derail the appropriations process, despite the top-level spending agreement. There are also many other agencies and programs vying for those additional funds.
But remember: it's not a zero-sum game this year. Overall spending will increase. The pot has grown. Congress has been very supportive of NASA. It now has the chance to advance key programs in a way that benefits the nation and the world, all for a small fraction of the new spending. Everybody has a chance to win.
But regardless of the likelihood of this best case scenario (who knows?) NASA will win merely by having a budget this year. A budget allows new programs to begin, existing ones to move forward, and removes uncertainty for the rest of the year. Having a two-year agreement will ensure some level of stability (i.e. NASA is less likely to experience continuing resolutions or shutdowns next year). It also allows Congress to weigh in on its priorities, allowing the whole democratic process to function more as designed.