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Approps Reshuffle Is Good for U.S. in Space and Science

In a recent Roll Call Guest Observer Scott Lilly made a wonderful case for institutional geriatrics in the House appropriations process (Jan. 27, “Does Rearranging Appropriations Panels Make Sense?”). His argument, essentially, was that old is better than new.

The essence of the piece was an attack on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for supporting both space exploration and modernization of the House. In particular, Lilly’s argument suggested that the nation is on the wrong track with the “Vision for Space Exploration,” which lays out a “go as you pay” stepping-stone approach to future human and robotic space exploration. Lilly related how this contention fared when laid at the feet of 35 local graduate students.

One has to question a group of graduate students who reject human destiny in our universe. But, more importantly, they are dead wrong when it comes to public support for the Vision for Space Exploration. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed supported the Vision’s plan, including a majority of both Republicans (79 percent) and Democrats (60 percent).

Opinion polling consistently shows strong support for space exploration, particularly when actual funding levels are put into context. Those polled by Gallup were initially under the mistaken impression that space exploration consumes a large part of the nation’s federal budget. When presented with the reality that less than 1 percent of their tax dollars are devoted to NASA’s budget, the level of public support for space exploration vaulted.

More importantly, the House of Representatives is right on track with its Appropriations Committee changes. Although the world moves aggressively into the 21st century, Congressional Appropriations panels have not been reflective of that change. With the reforms implemented by the House, science and space issues have become more closely aligned within the committee structure, giving them a higher priority and a more balanced placement within the overall process.

It has never made sense for science and technology agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to compete with veterans’ and housing funding. It would be a much better fit for those three agencies, along with other science-related offices, to be placed in a newly restructured subcommittee with the Commerce Department. Does anyone really want NASA to be forced to compete for funding against veterans in the appropriations process? Or is retaining the old structure just a convenient way to institutionalize opposition to space exploration?

A high priority for exploration and innovation is critical if our nation’s economic and national security is to be preserved. Investments in space, science, and technology — including the risks that come with those efforts — have consistently paved the way for advancement. If policymakers choose to ignore this critical obligation, we will inevitably weaken our position in an increasingly competitive, and dangerous, world.

DeLay has proved himself a proponent of modernizing this nation’s political institutions to meet 21st century challenges. His efforts, along with those of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), should be praised as forward-looking, not criticized just for the sake of partisan attack. And yes, in so doing they also assure investment in science and technology, and our society is better for it.

For the sake of our nation’s future, it is imperative that space, science and technology remain at the forefront of our national priorities. In fact, we should be demanding that our nation’s institutions change to meet the needs of the era in which we live. Those who are so tied to the institutions of the past that they cannot see the future forfeit their ability to lead.

Former Rep. Robert Walker (Pa.) served in the Republican leadership. He is now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates and serves as vice chairman of the Space Foundation’s board of directors.

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