“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law” – Article I Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States
Sometimes it is good to remember some basics of government operation. This may be a good time for review.
NASA is a federal executive agency; the President is the head of the executive branch of the government. But direction does not come from the President alone; it must be approved and funded by the legislative branch, Congress. Neither the executive nor the legislative branches can do something that is against the Constitution; the Judicial branch of the government determines that boundary.
NASA is currently operating under the “authorization” act of 2008 and the “appropriation” act of 2010. Authorization acts spell out what the agency should be doing; appropriations acts provide the money. Generally, NASA, like most federal agencies, is authorized to do more than there is money appropriated to do it with.
The current fiscal year is 2010; it started on October 1, 2009 and will end September 30, 2010. Fiscal Year 2011 starts October 1, 2010. The President of the United States sent his budget proposal for FY 2011 to the Congress on February 1, 2010 and that budget is under consideration by Congress at this time.
In a usual year, this would put the NASA financial/business office folks on track to be developing the 2012 budget request at this time. From shortly after the President’s budget request is announced until Memorial Day, each Federal executive agency pulls together their wish list/budget proposal for the fiscal year after next. So at the same time that each agency is operating under the current fiscal year appropriation and Congress considers the budget proposal for next fiscal year, work is started on the budget for the year after next. Three different fiscal years are in play at one time.
Every federal executive agency provides their budget request to the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Executive Budget Office around the end of May. Then the OMB puts together the entire puzzle: the entire federal budget plan for the second fiscal year in the future. This is while the Congress is wrestling with modification or approval of the budget for the next fiscal year. Both OMB and Congress have to deal with the big picture issues: income from taxes, total government outlays, the deficit, etc.
Congress is supposed to pass a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, no later than September 30. They do not always meet that deadline, but will pass a “continuing resolution” which allows the federal government to continue in operation. These “continuing resolutions” generally allow spending at the level of the previous year (but not always) and generally have limited time affectivity – a few days to a couple of months (but not always). Some years, Congress never completely passes a budget and portions of the federal government operate for a full year (or more) under continuing resolution.
Whether in a real appropriation bill or a continuing resolution, Congress sets the rules. In every appropriations act there is a breakdown of how the money is to be spent. No federal agency (NASA in our case) can ignore that breakdown, it is literally federal law. Uninformed outsiders that recommend NASA executives move money from one account to another are actually recommending violation of federal law. This is clearly not an option. If any federal agency desires to move money from one account or program or project to another, that agency must go hat in hand to the appropriations committees of Congress to request an “op plan change”. Sometimes Congress agrees and sometimes they don’t.
So during the summer and fall, as Congress considers the budget request for the next fiscal year, OMB works on the budget request for the following year. Generally about Thanksgiving the OMB provides a “passback” to each federal agency. In essence they say ‘We know what you asked for; here is what you are going to get’. From the end of November until the President’s budget request is formally presented to Congress (about Feb. 1) there is a period of time when agencies can try to negotiate with the OMB. Details that perhaps didn’t mesh get worked out. A narrative and detailed plan is developed. But once the President’s budget request goes to Congress, internal debate in the Executive branch is done. The President’s budget is our budget proposal and we are duty bound as Federal Executive branch employees to support it.
National policy is made at one place in America: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That is as it should be. So, as a federal executive agency, NASA does not make space policy. The vast majority of NASA employees have nothing to do with the development of national space policy. The NASA Administrator and a handful of senior agency officials can propose, debate, and participate in the discussion, but after the President decides, his policy is our policy. That is the way our republic works. Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned; the executive branch personnel are required to support the President’s proposal whenever they are speaking as part of their official duties.
Last year, there was a significant policy debate within the Administration about America’s plans for human space flight. The Administration commissioned a study, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka, the “Augustine committee”) – a group of experts who studied for many weeks what should the national space policy should be. Their report was delivered to the Administration in October. At Thanksgiving, when NASA expected to get its “passback” from OMB as usual, the OMB did not provide detailed information on human space flight since the policy was still under review. The passback from OMB came just a few days before release of the President’s budget proposal to Congress on February 1.
NASA is, a little out of sequence, putting together the details which result from the national space policy. These details will be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are in accord with the overall national policies.
National policy as proposed by the President is reviewed by the Congress which codifies it in an “authorization” act.
Congress, it should be noted, divides into two parts: the authorizers and the appropriators. The authorizers consider what the national policy should be (they review the recommendation by the President) and tell federal agencies what they are “authorized” to do. A different set of the legislators deal with money and dole out “appropriations” from the national treasury. A federal agency might be “authorized” to do many things, but federal agencies can only actually do things that money is “appropriated” for. Authorizers do not have to pass a new “authorization” bill every year; appropriators must pass an appropriations bill every year (even it if is just a continuing resolution).
I hope this short, very simplified Civics lesson helps in understanding what is going on.
Remember the basics:
(1) National Policy is developed by the White House, generally with a lot of advice.
(2) The President proposes policy and a budget to the Congress
(3) The Congress agrees, modifies, or changes the policy and the budget
(4) All Federal Executive agencies “execute” the plan approved by Congress.
Graduate level courses are available if you desire more detailed information.