Friday, May 1, 2015

Small Change

Click the arrow to watch the April 30, 2015 House science committee hearing on NASA's budget.

There comes a point where you can't watch these hearings any more.

You feel your intelligence being insulted by the naked partisanship, the craven porkery and the self-inflicted ignorance that pervades the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Five years ago, members of this committee howled with outrage when the Obama administration proposed cancelling the bloated failed Constellation program. Members of both parties claimed this would end the U.S. space program, that Russia and China would surpass the U.S. in space, that commercial companies would never succeed at spaceflight.

If this committee and its senatorial sibling had funded commercial crew at the level originally requested by the administration, it was projected that U.S. and other allied astronauts would be flying this year from the Space Coast. Congress chose instead to cut the President's request by 62% over the next three years, and by lesser amounts in subsequent years, extending U.S. reliance on Russia for two to three years.

The money went instead to the Space Launch System, which to this day has no missions or destinations. NASA was required by its 2010 authorization act to spend about $3 billion per year on SLS and its Orion crew capsule. Although the act required the first test flight by the end of 2016, it now appears that will occur no earlier than 2019.

Judging by its September 2011 media event, the main purpose of SLS seems to be to preserve jobs in the districts and states of certain members of Congress — including those on this committee.

Many of those prognosticators remain on this committee five years later. Their failed prophecies have left them unrepentant, as they move on to new idiocies that leave me in more cynical moments questioning the wisdom of representative democracy.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin directing Russian troops to invade Crimea, Congress was left with no choice this year but to fully fund the administration's $1.2 billion request for commercial crew.

But SLS pork had to come from somewhere, so the Republican members zeroed in on NASA's Earth Sciences budget.

It's no secret that most Republican members of Congress are skeptical of climate change, if not outright deniers.

With both houses now led by Republican majorities, it seemed likely that the GOP leadership would try to slash climate change funding.

Space policy analyst Marcia Smith writes on

NASA’s earth science program is funded at $1.773 billion in FY2015. The request for FY2016 is $1.947 billion. Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $1.450 billion in FY2016. Under the constrained scenario, it would receive $1.199 billion. Using current funding and the aspirational scenario for FY2016, it would be an approximately 18 percent cut. Compared to the President’s request, it would be a roughly 26 percent cut. If the [Budget Control Act, i.e. sequestration] caps are not removed and the constrained scenario plays out for FY2016, it would be about a 32 percent cut compared to current funding or a 38 percent cut compared to the President’s request.

House and Senate Republicans on NASA’s authorization committees argue that NASA’s unique expertise is space exploration and studying the Earth should not be one of its priorities. Although many also are climate change skeptics, publicly they do not frame their arguments in that context, instead insisting that other agencies should pay for that research, not NASA. Republicans on this committee proposed deep cuts to NASA’s earth science budget in 2013 and Democrats introduced their own bill with more favorable funding. The Republican bill was approved, and the Democratic bill rejected, on party line votes in committee. That bill was never taken to the floor for a vote by the House, however. Instead, the House has since passed two NASA authorization bills that avoided partisan discord over funding by using figures that already were approved in the appropriations process. That tactic cannot be used this time since the bill is for future years.

The Republicans argued that other agencies should fund climate change research, but they didn't include in their bill those agencies or any funding for them. Those agencies, perhaps, are not within their jurisdiction, but it's certainly irresponsible to say “let someone else solve it” and walk away without a solution.

After the vote, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued this statement:

“The NASA authorization bill making its way through the House of Representatives guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.

“NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.

“In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

The legislation has a long way to go. The Senate science committee must pass its own authorization, and then the two bills must be reconciled as part of the annual budget process.

But the Senate committee is headed by Ted Cruz (R-TX), who in March called climate change activists “flat Earthers” and compared himself to Galileo. Mr. Cruz is running for President in 2016, so it's unlikely he'll mellow his climate change views which would leave him vulnerable to charges of moderation by the Tea Party wing of the Republican party.

My guess is that NASA's Earth Sciences budget will be gutted for the next two fiscal cycles, while the Republicans control Congress. But 2016 is a presidential election year. National demographics all but assure that the Democratic nominee will have an edge in the electoral college. Thirty-four Senate seats will be open, and twenty-four of those are Republicans. The current partisan divide in the Senate is 54-46, so in a year with a more sympathetic Democratic turnout it seems likely that the 2017 Senate will flip back into the (D) column.

If all this happens, expect some NASA climate change funding to be restored.

After a lot more forehead slapping on this end of the cable modem.

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