Passage of NASA budget proves Congress capable of tough decisions

Tuesday - 11/29/2011, 8:11pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Future investments in science and technology projects may be at stake if Congress doesn't reduce the federal deficit, Maryland lawmakers said at a townhall held at NASA's Goddard Space Center.

Lawmakers have a lot of work to do to cut trillions of dollars from the deficit in the wake of the supercommittee's failure, said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) (AP)

"Without disciplined, courageous, dedicated work to get a handle on our deficit, we will not have the incredibly important resources necessary to invest in the future," he said. "That's what we do when we fund NASA: We invest in the future."

NASA took a $648 million hit in the 2012 budget, but its James Webb Space Telescope received about $150 million more than the White House requested. It took tough negotiating to preserve funding for the long-planned telescope, Hoyer said.

Dream big, but cut spending?

The budget compromise shows "that responsible Republicans and Democrats can work together to preserve programs that work and help us move forward as a nation," he said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) joined Hoyer at NASA Goddard to discuss the impact of NASA's budget. They singled out two audience members, Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist John Mather and Matthew Ritsko, winner of the SAVE Award for ideas to save the government money, for recognition.

Mather and Ritsko encapsulated the government's parallel desires to both dream big and curtail spending, said Mikulski, who leads the Senate Appropriations committee's subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget.

In negotiating the Commerce, Justice and Science budget, which included NASA funding, "we wanted to make sure we promoted American exceptionalism and we had a more frugal government," she said.

The Webb Telescope has been 15 years in the making. Cost overruns caused some lawmakers to question whether it should get funding to continue. But Mikulski said it would help "secure America's place in the future of astronomy and scientific space exploration not for only today, or for the next decade, but for the next 20 or 30 years and well beyond that."

She said lawmakers agreed to fund the telescope because they trusted NASA to follow through on its promise. Agency officials have promised to launch the telescope by 2018.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) (AP)

"We believe in the mission of this agency and we believe that you deliver on the mission," Mikulski said. "You deliver value. You deliver what you're supposed to do. You do it on time and you meet the bottom line. This is what we count on you to do."

After praising NASA employees, the lawmakers said they would not support the extended pay freezes or cuts in benefits for federal employees that the super committee was considering.

Federal employees have already sacrificed and further cuts should not be part of any deficit compromise, said Hoyer.

"We have the resources to solve our problem. We just need to have the will and courage to do so," he said, adding that Congress needed to reach consensus on revenue. "We have to make sure we have the resources to invest in programs like this, which will pay off for your generation and your children's generation."

'Lack of respect' for feds?

Mikulski said she worried about the "lack of respect" and "continued harassment and belittling of federal employees" by colleagues on the Hill.

"We have to make sure we can do no further harm," she said. "Let's boost morale by respect. Then let's boost morale to make sure that, whatever we do in the next several weeks, there are no layoffs."

Mikulski said Congress should look instead for cuts in the burgeoning Defense Department rather than seek further pay freezes or contributions from employees.

"Let's look at the line item in defense where we have $8 billion in unspent money," she said. "We could save $17 billion in defense in the next hour and a half and not break a sweat."

But between now and Christmas, she said, Congress had to focus on extending the Social Security payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits for people who have reached their limit but remain jobless.

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