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Funding Questions Loom For NASA, MDA, As Democrats Take Control

By | January 8, 2007

      As a Democratic majority last week took command of both houses of Congress, a key question is whether those lawmakers will provide solid financial support for space and missile defense programs.

      The Democratic Congress is inheriting a government that is drowning in red ink, with federal budget deficits running in the hundreds of billions of dollars range every year, unlike the record budget surpluses that existed at the end of the 1990s and start of this decade.

      All that deficit spending and debt has left the government financially strapped, creating a tough hurdle for any agency such as NASA, the Missile Defense Administration or Department of Defense in seeking any new funding.

      Rather, the mood for years in the Republican-led Congress was to seek programs to cut or eliminate.

      Thus space and missile programs face a challenging future in Congress.

      For example, in NASA, existing and planned research and development programs vital to continued U.S. leadership in space may suffer if funds are diverted from them to support the vision of space exploration including manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.

      Specifically, will Congress provide extra funds, such as $1 billion yearly, for NASA to develop its space exploration efforts while also performing needed research?

      Two key issues here are whether the United States and its people are willing to cede to other nations leadership in manned exploration of the cosmos, and whether they are willing to cede leadership in research and development programs required to preserve the foremost U.S. position in space.

      And in missile defense, the issues are no less daunting.

      Some Democratic leaders, such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have questioned the multiple missile defense programs and the large sums of appropriations that they require to continue.

      But such questions are countered by the reality of rising threats: China has some 800 missiles aimed across open waters toward Taiwan, an island nation that China vows to invade unless Taiwan capitulates and submits to rule by Beijing.

      Also, a Chinese submarine surfaced recently within torpedo-strike range of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

      China as well is developing and acquiring multiple types of new submarines. Destroyers, cutting-edge aircraft and more advanced military hardware are on the buying list as well.

      And China “painted” a sensitive U.S. satellite with a laser recently.

      Meanwhile, North Korea last summer fired off multiple missiles. While a long-range missile shot ended in failure shortly after launch, it is clear that North Korea will continue working on this capability until it is able to field missiles that can reach targets in North America.

      As well, North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon underground, ratcheting up its threat to South Korea, Japan, the United States and other nations.

      Meanwhile, Iran not only has plunged ahead with its nuclear materials enrichment program, it also fired a missile from a submerged submarine.

      Threats emanating from the Middle East have fostered interest in European allies as to how they might be able to defend themselves against missile attacks, with U.S. help.

      In the face of these dangers, it is difficult to see how Democrats could say the United States doesn’t need ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities, or to countenance abandonment of some programs in the multilayered BMD system to save money.

      As well, could members of Congress urge abandoning construction of aircraft carriers when erstwhile U.S. allies may abruptly refuse to permit U.S. forces to use their land bases for military strike operations?

      Can any lawmaker urge abandonment of the ultimate U.S. stealth weapon platform, submarines, at a time when even rogue nations and terrorist groups are wielding radar-guided weapons?

      On top of all these financial crunches, Democrats are taking control of the legislature after 12 years of Republican rule in which many domestic programs were starved of funds, and many Democratic voters may now expect that new leaders in Congress will provide greatly increased fiscal support for those programs.

      Then there are the enormous unmet needs of paying for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as baby boomers retire.

      So now comes the ultimate question: how can Democrats resolve all of these urgent but competing financial needs?

      Theoretically, Democrats could free up billions of dollars by taking a step they urged during the election campaign: pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq. War costs are running perhaps $70 billion a year. But Republicans and many Democrats, and President Bush, would oppose any abrupt pullout, meaning that savings might be meager, especially since there is an enormous tab coming due to repair or replace hardware damaged or destroyed during the Iraq conflict.

      Another possibility might be to kick the can down the road, and delay significant funding increases by three years or more, from the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, to 2011 or later.

      That’s because the enormous tax cuts that President Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 are to expire automatically in another three fiscal years or so, and that would return tax rates to levels that prevailed in the 1990s and 2000, during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.

      A flood of new revenues, by some estimates, would wipe out budget deficits for a few years, and provide funds for new programs, at least for a while.

      Relief could be obtained even sooner if Democrats were to pass legislation immediately returning tax rates to 1990s levels. But that would open Democrats to Republican charges that they are the party of higher taxes.

      Clearly, without new government revenues, space and missile defense programs may face a dire fiscal squeeze, damaging critical programs.

      There is no such thing as a free lunch.

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