Thursday, December 19, 2013

NASA Plods Along Despite Congress

Congress finally passed a government spending plan yesterday, but it's not the same thing as a budget and it's not the same thing as appropriating dollars.

This morning's Florida Today has an analysis that includes several paragraphs on how the bill affects NASA.

It's not clear how the reduced cuts will affect Florida until the House and Senate Appropriations Committees work out details early next year. But the extra money is expected to sidestep some of the most draconian budget scenarios federal agencies were facing.

NASA, for example, received almost $16.9 billion in fiscal 2013 — nearly $1 billion less than it received in fiscal 2012 because of sequestration. Before the latest budget deal, the House Appropriations Committee had approved a budget of $16.6 billion in fiscal 2014 for the space agency.

The deal the Senate approved Wednesday likely will bring that number up. But it appears unlikely NASA's final budget will reach Obama's $17.7 billion request or the Senate-approved number of $18 billion.

Authorization and appropriation are two different aspects of the federal budget process. Neither has happened yet for Fiscal Year 2014, which began October 1.

Authorization tells NASA what it's allowed to do, and sets spending targets for specific programs. Appropriation is the actual money Congress decides to give an agency, so authorization really doesn't mean much.

The critical commercial crew program awaits reconciliation between the House and Senate versions. Over the last three fiscal years, Congress cut the Obama administration's commercial crew funding requests by 62%. For Fiscal Year 2014, the administration requested $821 million, the House appropriations bill offers $500 million and the Senate $775 million. The House amount would likely extend U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz through at least 2018.

The administration's Asteroid Initiative also hangs in the balance. The House authorization bill prohibits it. The Senate version lets NASA decide what's best for NASA.

With Congress having adjourned until January, no reconciliation between the various versions is likely any time soon. Another debt ceiling battle is on the horizon, so NASA and the rest of the federal government will plod along without any consensus, direction or leadership from Congress.

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