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Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (left) at a 2013 hearing of the science committee

U.S. House of Representatives science committee

House science panel feuds over NASA earth science programs, then finds compromise

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have waged repeated battles over funding for earth science research at NASA, with Democrats wanting more and Republicans less. But yesterday, the two sides came to an agreement on how much to spend on the earth sciences that allowed them to advance legislation sketching out a 2-year vision for the space agency.

The setting was the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), wanted to shape NASA’s plan for human space exploration, research missions, and other activities at the $20 billion agency. The usual approach would have been to confer with the Democratic minority on the committee and negotiate a bill that could win bipartisan support.

But when it comes to making science policy, Smith and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the panel’s top Democrat and fellow Texan, often appear to be barely on speaking terms. And when Smith shared a draft of his NASA reauthorization bill (H.R. 5503) 3 weeks ago, Johnson and her colleagues raised lots of questions about some provisions. (An authorization bill doesn’t appropriate any money. But it gives policy guidance to an agency.)

The two sides couldn’t clear up those points of contention, however, and a few weeks later Smith sent Democrats an altered version that addressed some issues and left many others still unresolved. And this time, Smith offered what Johnson described yesterday as “an ultimatum”: Accept the bill in its entirety, or I’ll trim $471 million from NASA’s $1.92 billion earth science program within NASA’s $6.2 billion science office.

Johnson felt the committee hadn’t spent enough time discussing several major NASA programs, including the fate of the International Space Station, the status of several planetary exploration missions, and a proposal by President Donald Trump to kill the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a $3 billion plus instrument under development. So on 12 April Johnson refused to sign onto the bill. True to his word, the next day Smith crafted a different version of the bill that included the 25% cut to earth sciences.

Yesterday the committee took up that measure. That’s when a second—and more productive—round of negotiations occurred. The crux of the deal was an amendment by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D–CO) to add back the $471 million to earth sciences that Smith had stripped from what Johnson characterized in her opening statement as the “punitive” version of the original bill.

The first item on the committee’s schedule, a bill to strengthen federal support for science education, was adopted quickly. Then Smith declared a 5-minute recess to complete what he called “ongoing negotiations” on the NASA bill. “This won’t take long,” he told members. “You don’t even have to leave your seats.”

Those negotiations actually lasted 36 minutes, with members milling about and online viewers being left in the dark. When the markup resumed, Smith immediately delivered an opening statement—presumably written before the markup began—that defended his planned 25% cut to the earth sciences budget.

But the deal had been struck. Smith had made two important concessions. First, he would restore proposed funding for earth sciences to its 2018 level. Second, he would not find offsetting cuts in other programs. By boosting NASA’s science budget and its overall budget by $471 million, he was ignoring an unwritten rule by House Republican leaders that authorization bills should not propose giving an agency more than its current spending level.

In return, Johnson agreed to support the entire bill, temporarily putting aside her concerns over several provisions. The legislators also reached an understanding that the two sides would continue to tinker with the bill before Smith took it to the House floor.

Thus, when Perlmutter put forward his amendment, Smith and most of the committee’s leadership lined up behind it. The vote was 27 to five, with every Democrat in favor and only five Republicans refusing to jump on board. Minutes later, the committee approved the overall bill by a similar margin—26 to seven—although this time seven Democrats voted no. The Republicans nays were likely a rejection of boosting overall authorized spending levels for NASA; the Democratic nays probably reflected their unhappiness with the dearth of debate over the bill’s substance.

In the end, Smith seemed happy with the compromise. “I want to thank everyone who decided to vote aye on this bipartisan bill,” he said in his closing remarks. “I hope [that] will increase its prospects of being enacted.”

Those prospects aren’t good, however. The Senate so far has shown no interest in a NASA reauthorization bill. So it’s possible that this bill could simply add to the pile of House-passed bills that never become law. But science advocates can at least say that the House science committee has endorsed stable funding for the earth sciences program at NASA.