Commentary: Alabama Sen. Shelby is lost in space

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

Recent polls show that Americans are already disenchanted with the new Congress, which is so collectively inept that it can’t even pass a budget.

Public sentiment is not likely to improve with the news that lawmakers are forcing NASA to spend $1.4 million a day on a troubled space program that was officially scrapped last year.

It’s a lesson in the politics of waste, as practiced by those who pretend to be crusaders for thrift.

When President Obama submitted his 2011 budget plan to Congress, he canceled funding for the space agency’s Constellation program, the primary mission of which was to return astronauts to the moon. The decision wasn’t a surprise.

More than $9 billion had been spent on developing a new space capsule and the Ares series of rockets, but Constellation was plagued by long delays and hefty cost overruns. An independent panel of experts concluded that 2017 was the earliest that the Ares rockets would be ready for flights, and that a lunar mission wouldn’t occur until the mid-2020s, at the soonest.

Obama and top NASA officials wanted to scrap the project because it was too costly, and to refocus on deep-space exploration and development of commercial launches.

“The truth is, we were not on a sustainable path to get back to the moon’s surface,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Some lawmakers were irate, none more than Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama. This would be the same Richard Shelby who every year introduces a balanced-budget amendment; the same Richard Shelby who piously rails about runaway government spending, and trashes TARP, and frets about the terrible deficit.

But wait. Some of the work on the Ares rockets was taking place at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Shelby’s home state, which meant that jobs would be lost. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when you eliminate a big federal contract .

So, as a pre-emptive strike, the senator inserted a sentence in the 2010 federal budget that basically barred NASA from de-funding the Constellation space program until the 2011 budget was approved..

But in October, Congressional leaders agreed on a NASA funding bill that contained the White House proposal to scratch the manned lunar project. That should have been the end, but it wasn’t.

Since then, the so-called Shelby provision — only 70 words — has remained intact in the temporary spending measures that have been passed to keep government running. Mysteriously, nobody seems able to get the language deleted, which would shut off the $1.4 million a day that’s being wasted on a space program that no longer exists.

The largest beneficiary is Alliant Techsystems (ATK), a prime contractor on the first phase of the Ares I rocket. You probably won’t be shocked to know that last year Sen. Shelby received $10,000 in campaign contributions from ATK’s political action committee, and thousands more from company employees.

In January, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin called for Congress to take “immediate action” to halt funding on Constellation. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space, promised to get the Shelby provision removed from the budget resolutions because “we can’t afford to be wasting money.”

Last week, a spokesman for Nelson said “partisan politics” had stalled the senator’s efforts to fix the spending bill, but he remained confident that he’ll be successful.

Meanwhile, tax dollars keep flowing to the abandoned moon-shot program — about $250 million since Oct. 1, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. Add another $29 million by the time the current budget extension lapses in April.

Politicians who go to Washington are expected to fight for local projects, and over the years Shelby has brought loads of federal pork home to Alabama. This time he lost.

Yet instead of doing what’s best for all American taxpayers (and for NASA, which is scraping for funds), the senator is content to sit back and watch nearly $280 million go down a black hole — and into the hands of major campaign contributors.

A few weeks ago, an aide who didn’t mean to be humorous asserted that Shelby wasn’t “actively trying” to protect the 70-word budget item that’s kept the Constellation money flowing. That’s not to say he has tried to stop it, either actively or passively.

Judging from public opinion surveys, the American people might be getting wise to phony deficit hawks who want everyone to sacrifice except for their own constituents and fat-cat supporters.

Shelby is fond of bashing Democrats and warning, “We are on the road to financial destruction.”

Given his own not-so-stellar role in the Constellation debacle, he gives new meaning to the term “space case.”

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