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Space agency’s GOP fans make their case to shield it from cuts

House GOP already wants to protect defense, veterans, border security even as they seek deep overall budget cuts

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson leaves the National Prayer Breakfast in the Capitol on Feb. 2, 2023.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson leaves the National Prayer Breakfast in the Capitol on Feb. 2, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

​As House Republicans sit down to write their fiscal 2024 spending bills, appropriators are vowing to protect defense, veterans and border security funding from cuts. Some are pushing to add another spending category to the protected list: NASA. 

While the space agency has long seen bipartisan support in Congress, Republican plans to slash spending to the fiscal 2022 topline level of $1.47 trillion mean $131 billion in cuts have to come from somewhere. 

But some Republican appropriators say they’re aiming to carve out NASA, which received $25.4 billion for the current fiscal year in the December omnibus package.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., who sits on the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations panel that oversees NASA’s budget, said NASA missions have national security implications and he is fighting to “keep the agency whole.” 

Garcia credited NASA for keeping its requested budget increases to single digits in recent years. He pointed to the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter that has flown in Mars’ atmosphere and a major launch associated with the agency’s planned mission to return to the moon in November as examples of recent NASA successes. 

“NASA’s been responsible,” he said. “We’re getting results. … Very important stuff NASA is doing, we’re getting our bang for our buck out of them.” 

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located at the California Institute of Technology, not far from Garcia’s district, where top aerospace contractors Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have facilities. Garcia’s former employer, Raytheon Technologies Corp., is also a major NASA contractor. 

President Joe Biden requested $27.2 billion for NASA in his fiscal 2024 budget request, a 7 percent increase, with a focus on its planned return trip to the moon. That program, Artemis, would receive $8.1 billion, a $500 million increase or 6.6 percent over the current fiscal year. 

House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., expressed support for NASA during the agency’s April subcommittee budget hearing, calling it an “exciting program that we all share in admiring.” 

“There’s a lot of reasons why NASA enjoys almost unanimous support here on the Hill, certainly bipartisan support, nonpartisan support I should say,” Rogers said. 

Morehead State University in Rogers’ district has a robust space science program, and the university has been involved in the launch of five NASA-funded satellites. Rogers requested a nearly $10 million earmark this year to improve the university’s space tracking systems.

Reps. Harold Rogers, R-K.Y., right, and Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., attend a House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Justice Department budget request on March 29. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rogers said during the hearing that balancing the need to fund NASA at the appropriate level while focusing on stemming the growth of government spending is a “difficult balance to strike.”

“We want to ensure that the United States remains the world leader in space, particularly in light of the aggressive investments China has made in space exploration,” Rogers said. “We’re also accountable to the taxpayer, to ensure that NASA remains focused on its core mission.” 

Tough choices

Rogers’ balancing act will be on display in the coming weeks when his subcommittee unveils its fiscal 2024 spending bill. 

The numbers are under tight wraps. But early speculation is that some of the House nondefense appropriations bills could get rolled back to funding levels enacted four or even five years ago to accommodate expected boosts in defense and veterans programs. 

For example, NASA, which typically makes up roughly one-third of the Commerce-Justice-Science panel’s budget allocation, received $20.7 billion in fiscal 2018. That level would represent a nearly 19 percent cut from the agency’s current funding and a 24 percent reduction from the president’s fiscal 2024 request. 

Earlier this year, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., asked agency heads to model the impacts of a potential 22 percent cut to their budgets, or roughly the average reduction if defense and veterans funds were spared the ax. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote in a March letter that under that scenario, NASA’s return mission to the moon would be delayed and 4,000 employees and contractors could lose their jobs.

“If the Congress comes in with some across-the-board sequester cut, or if the Congress reverted to the 2022 budget with the exception of defense and veterans, NASA would be devastated,” Nelson said during a Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last month. 

In an interview, House Commerce-Justice-Science ranking member Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said NASA’s long-term projects, like the Mars Sample Return mission, need consistent funding levels to ensure the programs stay on schedule. 

“There are certain things you need to pay for on time, in order to meet the end deadline of the program” Cartwright said. “If you don’t meet that expenditure on time, the whole program gets delayed.” 

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Rayburn Building office on March 1. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., a member of the Commerce-Justice-Science panel, said he wants to protect NASA’s budget “as much as possible” and hopes that there are other places in that bill to trim. 

“I think it’s a national security issue; one thing we’ve been trying to focus on is making sure our defense, national security and homeland security are protected,” said Aderholt, the subcommittee’s former top Republican.

Aderholt said that while NASA is growing its partnerships with private companies, the agency must remain the leader in space. If there are cuts to NASA, Aderholt said they must be done in a way to avoid harming the agency’s core mission. 

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is in Huntsville, Ala., in the district next to Aderholt’s. Huntsville is home to NASA contractors including Dynetics, which was selected in 2021 to build NASA’s lunar lander. 

Chopping block

Protecting NASA from steep cuts could mean taking a meat cleaver to other agencies and programs in the Commerce-Justice-State measure. 

Nearly half of the bill’s allocation typically funds the Justice Department, which received $38.5 billion in fiscal 2023.

Democrats and the White House have been highlighting potential impacts of a 22 percent cut, such as Drug Enforcement Administration furloughs that could impact efforts to block fentanyl trafficking, local police hiring freezes, and the loss of thousands of FBI agents, federal prison correctional officers and more.

The remainder of the bill is largely the Commerce Department, funded at $11.2 billion this year, and the National Science Foundation, at $9.5 billion.

Cartwright said Republicans keep adding popular programs to their lists of areas that will be protected from cuts. 

“We go through hearing after hearing, illustrating the items that would get cut,” Cartwright said. “We tend to pick very popular programs, and what we hear from the other side is — well, we didn’t mean that.” 

House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said he thinks NASA will have to share in the pain as GOP lawmakers try to hold overall discretionary spending down to fiscal 2022 levels.

“I think there’s going to have to be a haircut for a lot of folks,” said Clyde, a first-year appropriator and member of the Commerce-Justice-Science panel. “I get that they do good work, but they have to be financially and fiscally responsible just like the rest of us, because right now we are on borrowed money.”