Monday, December 8, 2003

NASA's funding displaced by 'pork': "When House and Senate budget negotiators announced a deal on a massive $328 billion federal spending bill, lawmakers proudly noted that they had funded NASA at the amount requested by President Bush in February.

"But a closer look at the $15.5 billion bill shows that budget writers axed more than $300 million from NASA's budget request and replaced those dollars with money for line items of their own choosing. Many of them are hometown 'pork' projects that win legislators political favor at home but no fans inside the federal agencies they affect.

"For example, the proposed budget slices $200 million from the international space station program and $70 million from the Space Launch Initiative, part of NASA's effort to develop a next-generation spacecraft. An additional $20 million came from Project Prometheus, a key element of the agency's hopes of finding a way to convert nuclear energy into electricity for in-space propulsion and power.

"In place of those funds, lawmakers stuffed in an assortment of projects, spreading federal dollars across the country. The U.S. House is supposed to vote on the spending bill Monday. The Senate may take it up this week, although Democrats are threatening to block a vote until January.

"Some of these so-called 'earmarks,' such as a $1.9 million line item for infrastructure repairs at Kennedy Space Center, can't really be called pork. But there is more than $220 million in bacon in the NASA portion of the budget bill.

"The projects are as varied as $3 million for an astronomy center in Hawaii and $4.5 million for a new science center at St. Bonaventure University in New York to $3 million for 'ocean and weather research' at the University of Alaska—home of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"All of this comes in a year when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration suffered one of its darkest moments, the Feb. 1 loss of the space shuttle Columbia, and when many legislators have openly criticized the space agency's budget as insufficient.

"'It shows you that no agency, no program is sacred and is protected from the appropriators,' said David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that tracks overzealous federal spending."

"Sen. Bill Nelson, who has frequently complained that NASA has been starved of funding by the administration and Congress, said the projects may be admirable but should not take precedence over the needs of the agency."

"NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, a longtime staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee—and a former aide to Stevens—knows the budget process from both sides. He also served as deputy White House budget director in the first year of the Bush administration, before coming to NASA in late 2001.

While O'Keefe would not specifically address the redirected money, he complained about the decision to pare the space station's budget. He said the cut will put a crimp in the station's reserves and leave the project vulnerable to money woes when, inevitably, the unexpected happens.

"O'Keefe sounded particularly bitter in noting that NASA did exactly what Congress ordered it to do—get the station's spiraling cost overruns under control—yet lawmakers are now upsetting the balanced ledger that was so hard to achieve."

"Williams, who noted that earmarks are prevalent throughout the spending bill, said the growing practice shows just how much power the agencies have lost in the budgeting process. When lawmakers can tweak each and every expenditure, he said, the agencies are weakened.

"'Why have all these people employed at NASA when the appropriators are telling them how to spend their money anyway?' Williams asked. 'Their power is going unchecked. They're using money for political purposes and not things that accomplish a mission.'"

However, if the "agencies" (a euphemism for bureaucracy) are eventaully the downfall of every civilization, then perhaps their weakening is exactly what we need. If the appropriations process, as deplorable as some may find it, is the vehicle to preserving America as an institution, so be it. After all, the only thing appropriators change about government spending is where that money is spent; the same things are being accomplished, just in different places.

The problem remaining is the excessive and ever-increasing level of government spending. Then again, all this could change with an anticipated announcement on December 17.

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