It is axiomatic that without the support of Congress, a return to the moon is not going to happen. Congress scuttled President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative in the early 1990s by refusing to fund it. On the other hand, Congress supported President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration after some initial prodding. Congress was instrumental in saving key parts of the program after President Obama’s attempt to kill it.
If the incoming president smart, he will have already vetted his return to the moon program with the congressional leadership. However, the first year is crucial for getting such a program off the ground. It is therefore useful to go over what needs to be done to make that happen.
Two sets of committees in Congress deal with NASA and how much money it gets. One set, called the authorization committees, consists of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. However, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are central to deciding how much money the space agency receives each fiscal year.
The authorization committees each have a subcommittee that oversees NASA. In the House this is the Space Subcommittee. In the Senate this is the Science and Space Subcommittee. These subcommittees set NASA policy, crafting legislative language that defines the missions and direction that the space agency is charged with. They also set a funding authorization level, which is not the actual funding bill, but rather a kind of funding limit for the appropriators to work with.
The first thing that a president proposing to send American astronauts back to the moon is to get the Congressional stamp of approval on the project by having the plan incorporated in the NASA Authorization Bill. This task should be relatively easy as while there will be a recommendation of how much money should be spent, the amount will not necessarily be binding on the appropriators.
The House and Senate appropriations committees will have a vital role in determining whether a return to the moon takes off or is destroyed on launch. The appropriators determine how much money is spent by which department, agency, and bureau in the government. They also determine the level of funding for various accounts within those parts of the government. The appropriators can fully fund the return to the moon program, partly fund it, or provide no money for the project.
One of the problems NASA has always had in getting adequate funding is that it competes with money with several other agencies and departments. This is because each subcommittee is allocated a certain amount of money that it can dispense among the various parts of the government under its purview. In the both the Senate and the House, NASA competes with the Commerce and Justice Departments and certain other agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
The appropriations process is supposed to follow a set pattern. The appropriations subcommittees in each house of Congress pass their version of a bill. Then the full committees pass the bill, followed by the full House and Senate. Since the bills passed by the House and Senate are usually different, the differenced are ironed out in a conference committee which then presents a unified bill that is passed by the two houses and then sent to the president for his signature.
More often than not, at least in recent years, Congress managed to complete only a few if any appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year at the end of September. Then Congress scrambles to lump all of the unpassed spending bills into a catchall continuing resolution or even a series of continuing resolutions as various factions of the legislative branch and the White House negotiate about how much the government will spend. Sometimes the work is not done until the end of the actual year, whereupon the process starts all over again.
The sad fact of the matter is that the budget process is designed to allow for maximum mischief making at every step of the way. Usually this involves adding in more spending. But sometimes the mischief consists of attacking the president’s priorities, greatly reducing what is spent on them, or cancelling them outright.
Influencing members of Congress to support a presidential priority is an art. The process of bending a politician to the presidential will is dependent as much on the president as it does the politician being influenced.
President Lyndon Johnson would use something called “the treatment” to bend people to his will. He would use his large, physical size and his intimidating personality to convince a senator or congressman to vote the way he wanted. But since LBJ had an innate ability to read people, he would adapt this technique to individuals whom he was trying to persuade. A lot of great civil rights legislation got passed that way; unfortunately so did a lot of ruinous Great Society welfare programs.
President Reagan, on the other hand, used his personal charm and his movie star status to persuade congressmen to support his agenda. During a crucial stage of the selling of the Kemp Roth Tax Cuts legislation, Reagan invited 15 Democratic congressmen to Camp David where he served drinks and told funny stories about the good old days of Hollywood. The tax cuts eventually passed.
The incentives for a representative or a senator to support a return to the moon will be many and varied. While one might wish that our elected representatives will make their decisions solely on what they perceive to be what is best for the country, that is an ideal more often than a reality. Some congressmen will have to be given other inducements that was rightly compared by Otto Bismarck to sausage making.
The reason why NASA centers are spread out over the country is because Lyndon Johnson realized that members of Congress are motivated by baser things than mere patriotism. There is no reason that the Johnson Spaceflight Center is in Texas separate from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida except to make sure that the Florida and Texas congressional delegations are supporters of NASA funding. California, Ohio, and Alabama also have major NASA facilities.
Sadly, too many congressmen are like the character in “The Godfather Part 2” who just wants to “wet his beak” where it comes to NASA projects. They are more than willing to vote for a return to the moon so long as it means contracts and jobs in their districts. These people have to be accommodated, since the solution arrived at by Vito Corleone is off the table.
If the carrot doesn’t work, there is always the stick. An American president can do a lot of harm to a recalcitrant member of Congress if he has a mind to. Government contacts for a particular district can dry up just as much as they can manifest. A member of Congress who doesn’t want to play ball may find him or herself without party support in the next election. He or she might even find a primary opponent to deal with should the president feel particularly put out.
The president always has the veto pen if a funding bill finds is way to his desk that doesn’t give enough money to his priorities, such as a return to the moon program. President George W. Bush offered his first veto threat when it looked as if the House was going to gut the Vision for Space Exploration.
It turned out that he didn’t have to. Then House Majority Leader Tom Delay, using his power to determine what does and does not get to the floor, made it known that the appropriations bill funding NASA would not be voted on until President Bush’s space exploration program was fully funded. That illustrates one of the great principles of getting things done in the House. That is making powerful friends. It was too bad that Delay was obliged to leave the House later to deal with trumped up, politically motivated ethics charges. In any case, Delay would not have been majority leader for much longer, since the Democrats took over the House in 2006.
That last illustrates another principles to bear in mind when shepherding a long term program like a return to the moon. All power, like glory, is fleeting.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and the Children of Apollo trilogy .