Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Mad Tea-Party

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

In yet another attempt to seize control of NASA from the executive branch, the House space subcommittee today voted to prohibit NASA from cancelling the Space Launch System, Orion crew vehicle, International Space Station, or the James Webb Space Telescope unless Congress approves it in advance.

Dan Leone of Space News reports:

Should the bill become law, NASA would lose the ability to unilaterally terminate these programs — something federal agencies are typically allowed to do. It would also give these programs leeway to tap into the so-called termination liability funds that contractors set aside to cover any expenses that arise if the government cancels their programs. For the missions covered under H.R. 3625, these set-asides total hundreds of millions of dollars, which could be used for development if the bill passes.

The article also quotes recently departed NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who was speaking today at the annual COMSTAC meeting:

“We should not be debating whether or not we should have the ability to terminate a program that is not working in a cost-plus environment,” former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver told COMSTAC ... The ability to cancel a program for convenience is essential to protecting the government against runaway cost increases in big development programs, she said.

Garver referred to a government contracting practice called cost-plus. According to Wikipedia, “a contractor is paid for all of its allowed expenses to a set limit plus additional payment to allow for a profit.”

Cost-plus is why so many NASA contracts go over budget and fall behind schedule. One prime example is Constellation. Years behind schedule and billions over budget, the Government Accountability Agency in August 2009 concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.”

To quote from the introductory page:

While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.

The Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Congress rebelled, because Constellation brought pork to the districts and states of many of those representatives on the House and Senate space subcommittees.

Congress agreed to cancel Constellation, but replaced it with a new pork program called Space Launch System — known as Senate Launch System to its critics. Congress ordered NASA to use existing Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors rather than going out to competitive bid, and ordered NASA to use the Orion capsule atop the SLS.

To this date, Congress still hasn't told NASA what it's supposed to do with SLS.

The JWST also suffered massive cost overruns, but it's being built in Maryland. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) happens to chair the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, so she made sure JWST wasn't cancelled. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) amended H.R. 3625 to include JWST.

Today's action was a pre-emptive attack to prevent the Obama or other future administration from attempting to cancel Congressional pork.

It was passed by a voice vote, so there's no record of who actually voted yea or nay.

Notably missing from today's list of House space subcommittee priorities were NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs. These critical programs deliver cargo to the ISS, and are developing crew vehicles so NASA no longer has to rely on Russia for space taxi services. Apparently those programs don't deliver enough pork to the districts of those on the House and Senate space subcommittees, so they're not protected. A November Office of Inspector General report concluded that Congress had cut the commercial crew program's funding by 62% over the last three years from the Obama administration's requests.

H.R. 3625 has a long way to go before it becomes law. It's unclear how other committees in both congressional chambers will react to this attempt to violate government contract protocol. It's possible they may think it's a great idea and throw a sensible business practice out the window in the name of bipartisan porkery. The bill could be merged with more vital legislation to ensure President Obama doesn't veto it.

In any case, it's just another reminder of how much today's Congress reminds us of the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland.

The Mad Tea Party ... or the House Space Subcommittee?

UPDATE December 12, 2013 — I neglected to include links above to the proposed legislation:

H.R. 3625 as proposed by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)

The amendment as introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) on behalf of Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)


  1. Doesn't the ISS funding cover funding for commercial cargo (and eventually funding for the commercial crew transportation system)?

  2. yg1968 wrote:

    "Doesn't the ISS funding cover funding for commercial cargo (and eventually funding for the commercial crew transportation system)?"

    Commercial crew is in a different part of the FY 13 NASA budget. Cargo and crew are in a separate part of the 2010 Space Act. The FY 14 budget and 2013 Space Act haven't passed, but I assume the final result won't change much.

    It depends on how one defines "International Space Station." HR 3625 defines SLS and Orion but not ISS. Commercial Resupply Services (the successor to COTS) I suppose one could argue could be included in the ISS definition, but there are other vehicles capable of delivering cargo (Progress, ATV, HTV).

    It's pretty clear the subcommittee members were interested in protecting SLS, Orion and JWST. They don't care about the rest.