Ad Astra Sans Pork: Earmarks as Roadblocks in Space

By Keith Cowing
February 4, 2004
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Ad Astra Sans Pork: Earmarks as Roadblocks in Space

Yesterday, in a budget briefing on NASA’s FY 2005 budget I asked NASA comptroller Steve Isakowitz about the fact that budget charts addressing the budget environment from FY 2004 to FY 2009 only made mention of Congressional earmarks for FY 2004 to the tune of $388 million – a number subtracted from the rest of NASA’ s budget. In calculating the budgets for FY 05-09 no consideration was given on this chart to the possible impact that such earmarks would have on out year funding.

Even if one assumed that the constant growth in earmarks in past years were to remain stable (when in fact it has been increasing dramatically) this would result in some $1.94 billion in potential liens against NASA’s overall budget between FY 05 and FY 09. This could be problematical for NASA inasmuch as it is relying upon reprogramming and a modest budget increase to mount its new exploration agenda.

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I asked Isakowitz what NASA’s strategy was – and if the President was going to ask Congress to “just say no”. Isakowitz agreed that this was an issue of concern noting that NASA was seeking to “take every penny we can scrape up and devote to this vision”. As for a strategy of dealing with Congress, he said only that NASA ‘hopes to work with Congress” and “reverse the trend” and that there were times in NASA’ s past when earmarks were not as much of an issue.

To be fair, although it is somewhat naive to expect that this will not be an issue, this is all Isakowitz can say or do at this point. The issue at hand is how Congress takes a budget crafted around what an agency needs to do certain things and then does whatever it wants in this regard despite pleas from the agencies whose budgets it laden with what some call Congressional “pork”. Later, when that agency goes over budget (usually for reasons unrelated to the nature of the pork projects themselves) Congress turns a deaf ear to the notion that the money they diverted to pork in their home states might have been just what the agency need to address a problem.

In issuing its final report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) made it very clear that NASA often did not have sufficient resources (all of which equate to money in the long run) with which to do the things it is supposed to do. Budget issues figured prominently in their recommendations.

Although the CAIB did express some concern about the effect of earmarks on NASA’s ability to run programs in its final report, internal CAIB documents show that the CAIB itself was somewhat split on the issue of earmarks and whether it would be politically wise to raise the issue.

This is somewhat curious since the CAIB was supposed to be looking into the causes of the Columbia accident in manner removed from political considerations of what they discovered. None the less politics seems, from these documents, to have intruded even into the board’s deliberative process. Pork is certainly pervasive.

As cited below at least one CAIB member tried to get the board to walk the tight rope “between pork and politics.” This is, of course, an impossible task. Pork is 100% political, by definition.

Someone is going to have to grapple with this issue sooner or later. Humanity is not going to expand out into the cosmos as President Bush said last month if it has to carry all of this pork along as ballast.


Pressure on NASA’s budget has come not only from the White House, but also from the Congress. In recent years there has been an increasing tendency for the Congress to add “earmarks – congressional additions to the NASA budget request that reflect targeted Members’ interests. These earmarks come out of already-appropriated funds, reducing the amounts available for the original tasks. For example, as Congress considered NASA’s Fiscal Year 2002 appropriation, the NASA Administrator told the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NASA budget that the agency was “extremely concerned regarding the magnitude and number of congressional earmarks in the House and Senate versions of the NASA appropriations bill.24 He noted “the total number of House and Senate earmarks … is approximately 140 separate items, an increase of nearly 50 percent over FY 2001. These earmarks reflected “an increasing fraction of items that circumvent the peer review process, or involve construction or other objectives that have no relation to NASA mission objectives. The potential Fiscal Year 2002 earmarks represented “a net total of $540 million in reductions to ongoing NASA programs to fund this extremely large number of earmarks. 25

24 Letter from Daniel Goldin to Representative James T. Walsh, October 4, 2001. CAIB document CAB065-01630169.

25 Ibid.

Source: CAIB Report Volume 1 Page 104

  • Mr. Wallace reminded the board that Senator McCain had asked Admiral Gehman to look into the effects on the program of non-shuttle related “pork” such as aquariums and petting zoos.
  • Dr. Logsdon indicated that the board has to differentiate between pork and politics. He said Senator McCain is talking about budget earmarks. He warned the board that the senator is considered by many on Capitol Hill to be a maverick on this issue and that an attack on pork in general risked alienating many important lawmakers. The board must show how allocating money for other programs has hurt the shuttle program.

Source: Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Minutes of Meeting May 21, 2003 CMM008-0035 Page 10 of 18

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