Commercial space bill dies in the House

Space

SANTA FE, N.M. — A bill designed to reform commercial space regulations and extend the life of the International Space Station failed to win approval in the House Dec. 21 amid lackluster support for the bill and opposition from some Democrats.

The Space Frontier Act, S. 3277, failed to win approval on a 239–137 vote. The bill was being considered under a legislative process in the House known as “suspension of the rules” that limits debate and the ability to amend the bill, but requires a two-third majority to win passage.

The bill won approval in the Senate by unanimous consent Dec. 20. It was originally not included in the list of bills distributed by the House Majority Leader for consideration on Dec. 21, but was added on short notice.

The bill would have directed reforms of commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, and extended authorization of the ISS from 2024 to 2030. The version passed in the Senate, after negotiations with House colleagues, included several changes from the earlier version that cleared the Senate Commerce Committee, such as shortening the deadline for the government to render a decision on remote sensing applications and authorizing NASA to start a low Earth orbit commercialization program, something the agency proposed in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

In a brief debate on the House floor, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the retiring chair of the House Science Committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), set to chair the committee in the next Congress, both said they supported the Senate bill. However, both had significant, but differing, reservations about it.

“The Space Frontier Act is a missed opportunity,” Smith said in his remarks. The bill, he argued, fell short of the broader reforms in the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which the House approved on a voice vote in April. “There is much work left to be done to bolster American competitiveness and foster innovation and I hope Congress will act next year to continue our leadership in space.”

Johnson offered her “reluctant support” for the bill because, unlike Smith, she felt the bill went too far in some respects. “The process that brought us to this point is extremely disappointing,” she said. “Many of the provisions of this bill have not been seriously vetted by the Science Committee. I doubt very much whether they were at all vetted by anyone in the Senate.”

At the same time, industry sources said that there was a behind-the-scenes effort to dissuade Democrats from voting in favor of the bill. That effort was led by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the current ranking member of the House Transportation Committee who is in line to chair the committee in the next Congress, out of concerns that the committee was not consulted about the bill and the issues he had about it. That committee has taken a renewed interest in commercial space transportation in recent years, including a June hearing on the effect of commercial launches on the national airspace system.

In the final roll call vote, 130 Democrats voted against the bill, including DeFazio. Forty-five Democrats voted in favor of the bill, including the ranking member of the space subcommittee, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) Rep. Johnson, the only Democrat to speak on the House floor about the bill, did not vote. Among Republicans, 194 voted for the bill and only seven against it.

Despite the bill’s failure, many elements of it will find new life in the next Congress or through other efforts. The Commerce Department has been working on a notice of proposed rulemaking to reform commercial remote sensing regulations. That proposed rule is still in final review within the administration, Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, said at a space law symposium Dec. 5. The Federal Aviation Administration is also working on a proposed rule to reform launch licensing processes, due for release Feb. 1.

Proposals to extend the life of the International Space Station, which had bipartisan support in the House and Senate, will likely be revisited by the next Congress. Johnson, in her remarks on the House floor, opposed the “arbitrary decision made by the Trump administration” to end direct federal funding of the ISS in 2025. “As we move into the next Congress, this is something that I hope to be looking into.”

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