Palazzo Vision: House Eviscerates NASA Space Act Agreements

Rep. Steven Palazzo
Rep. Steven Palazzo

On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Space met under Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) to mark up NASA’s budget for FY 2014 and 2015.

The $16.6 billion measure not only cuts the Obama Administration’s request by $1.1 billion, it includes a number of provisions designed to tie the hands of the NASA Administrator, protect key projects favored by Congress, and shift power away from the Administration.

In this edition of “Palazzo Vision: The Road to Pork,” we take a closer look at what the chairman and his merry band of government hating, pork loving comrades want to do to NASA’s Space Act Agreements.

What lies after the break is not for anyone with a weak stomach, heart condition, chronic ulcers or who is under the age of 18. You have been warned.

The budget markup requires that future rounds of NASA commercial crew program be conducted under “cost-type” contracts, which are much more burdensome and costly than the Space Act Agreements that the program has been operating under to date. Although this was approved by the subcommittee, not all of Palazzo’s Republican colleagues agree with this approach.

“Forcing Commercial Crew into a ‘cost-type’ contract, as Section 215 would do, would undermine all of the benefits the program is designed to bring,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) “That would result in rising prices, delayed availability, and subjecting the systems to potentially unending ‘requirements creep’ which is something that we all want to avoid.”

The additional delays that Rohrabacher fears would be in addition to the ones Congress already caused through its annual underfunding of the program. This year is no different; the House budget includes $700 million while the Administration has requested $821.4 million. Commercial flights are now expected to begin in 2017, which is about a two-year delay from the original schedule.

Congress has never bought into the wisdom of having two commercial crew suppliers as NASA wants. My best guess is that the underfunding of the program and the requirement for “cost-type” contracts is an attempt to force NASA to down select to one provider.

The committee wasn’t satisfied, however, with just preventing the Commercial Crew Program from using Space Act Agreements. Instead, the funding measure puts a whole range of restrictions on the future use of these agreements. These include:

  • prohibiting the NASA Administrator from entering into any Space Act Agreement exceeding $50 million unless Congress passes a law approving it;
  • stipulating that the amount of funds put in by NASA under a funded Space Act Agreement not exceed the total amount put in by partners “to the extent that the Administrator determines practicable”;
  • requiring NASA to “make available for public notice and comment each proposed Space Act Agreement at least 30 days before entering into such agreement, with appropriate redactions for proprietary, sensitive, or classified information”;
  • limiting the use of Space Act Agreements to situation in which “the use of a standard contract, grant, or cooperative agreement is not feasible or appropriate, as determined by the Associate Administrator for Procurement”;
  • requiring NASA to make Space Act Agreements available online in a searchable format no later than 60 days after the agreements are signed.

This would significantly reign in NASA’s use of Space Act Agreements by narrowing the scope of what could be done under them, and by requiring public comment for smaller agreements and Congressional approval for ones over $50 million. NASA would lose a fair amount of its flexibility in contracting, and its ability to pursue innovative partnerships would be crimped.

The Senate has not yet approved its version of NASA’s budget. Once it does, the two measures will have to be reconciled in conference committee.  So, we will see what happens to these agreements.

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