Thursday, June 11, 2015

Whole Hog

Click the arrow to watch Senator Richard Shelby named the June 2010 Porker of the Month by Citizens Against Government Waste. Video source: ReasonTV YouTube channel.

In a Congress of porkers, Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the prize pig.

Citizens Against Government Waste named him Porker of the Month in August 2003, October 2007, June 2010, and January 2014.

Shelby won the June 2010 award for trying to protect Constellation, a NASA program from the George W. Bush administration that was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The Government Accountability Office in August 2009 issued a report which concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had unresolved technical issues. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in October 2009 issued a report which concluded that Constellation was not sustainable without a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Based on those findings, the Barack Obama administration proposed in February 2010 that Constellation be cancelled and replaced with a commercial crew competition based on the Bush-era commercial cargo program.

That didn't sit well with Senator Shelby, whose state has thousands of people employed by government contractors working on Constellation.

CAGW stated in their June 2010 press release:

Sen. Shelby co-sponsored an amendment that would shield the program from proposed budget cuts to the fiscal year 2010 emergency war supplemental. “Americans are being forced to tighten their belts and the economy is limping along, but that doesn’t deter the porkers in Congress, like Sen. Shelby, who are still spending and rewarding government contractors orbiting the program. Sen. Shelby’s actions just perpetuate the notion that politicians in Washington are living on a completely different planet,” said CAGW President Tom Schatz. “This would be the time to move toward a more competitive model for space exploration. It is outrageous for Sen. Shelby to object to the private sector's work on space exploration and characterize it as 'corporate welfare,' when his own actions are nothing but pure pork-barrel spending to contractors from his state.”

As part of a broad political compromise, Congress eventually agreed to cancel Constellation and authorize commercial crew. Constellation was replaced with another program called Space Launch System. SLS is called “Senate Launch System” by its critics because it was crafted by members of the U.S. Senate led by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) to protect jobs in NASA space center/contractor states such as Alabama. To this date, SLS has no missions or destinations, and is at least two years behind schedule.

Commercial crew, meanwhile, has been underfunded every year by Congress. Over Fiscal Years 2011-2013, Congress cut President Obama's commercial crew funding by 62% from his original 2010 proposal. The cuts have been less in recent years, but in every fiscal year the money from those cuts was transferred to SLS. NASA estimates that these cuts delayed the first operational commercial crew flight at least two years, from 2015 to 2017.

The Republican Party took control of the Senate in 2015, and has controlled the House since 2011, so now the GOP is in a position to dictate both NASA's budget and the appropriation funding the agency actually receives.

Under the Democrats, for years Shelby was the ranking minority member on the Senate's appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding. In 2015, he is now the subcommittee chair, and his party controls the majority of votes on the panel, so Shelby now has more power to redirect commercial crew funding to SLS.

NASA officials have repeatedly warned Congress that cuts in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget would extend U.S. reliance on Russia for International Space Station access. Relations between the United States and Russia have been strained since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and at times Russian officials have threatened to terminate U.S. rides on ISS.

The Obama administration requested $1.2 billion for commercial crew in Fiscal Year 2016. Despite the warnings, the GOP-controlled House recently passed an FY16 appropriation reducing commercial crew by $250 million, or roughly 20%.

Not to be outdone, Shelby's subcommittee yesterday whacked $300 million — 25% — from commercial crew for FY16.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued a statement after the vote:

I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA's plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, and instead favors continuing to write checks to Russia.

Remarkably, the Senate reduces funding for our Commercial Crew Program further than the House already does compared to the President’s Budget.

By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space — and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own.

I support investing in America so that we can once again launch our astronauts on American vehicles.

Senator Bill Nelson, ironically the prime architect of the Space Launch System, took to the Senate floor to decry the Shelby subcommittee vote.

Click the arrow to watch Senator Bill Nelson's statement. Video source: SenBillNelson YouTube channel.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster has turned on its creator.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee met today to review the Shelby-led legislation. The full committee is chaired by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), whose state includes NASA's Stennis Space Center where rocket engines are tested, including those for the SLS.

As you might suspect, Cochran failed to ride to the rescue. The committee voted to uphold Shelby's 25% reduction in commercial crew funding. A proposal by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to restore the cut was defeated along party lines, 14-16.

The Republicans on that committee essentially voted to extend NASA reliance on Russia, perhaps to 2019 by some estimates.

Commercial crew still has some cards left in the funding deck.

When the funding bill comes up on the Senate floor, a proposed amendment could restore the funding if passed.

If that fails, the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled in conference committee. That bill will go for a vote to both houses, although any changes again would have to be approved by majorities in both chambers.

The last line of defense would be a presidential veto. On June 1, the President's Office of Management and Budget issued a statement that criticized House cuts in commercial crew among other provisions, and stated that the President's senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill.

Unlike the governors of some states, the President has no line-item veto. The final budget bill will contain thousands of pages, and NASA will be only one small part of it. President Obama won't veto the government's entire Fiscal Year 2016 just because of the commercial crew line item.

In any case, the actions by members of both houses in recent days document for the American voter which of these politicians are serious about returning astronaut flights to the United States, and which are only interested in parochial pork.

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