The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) strongly opposes the passage of House of Representatives bill HR 3625. This bill would (a) require NASA to obtain legislative permission to cancel four of its most expensive human spaceflight and science programs, and (b) allow contractors for these programs to have immediate access to hundreds of millions of dollars in funds which currently are held in reserve to pay the government’s obligations in the event of such termination. The four covered programs are the Space Launch System, the Orion crew capsule, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the International Space Station.
Ordinarily, government agencies like NASA have the right to terminate a project if it no longer appears necessary or cost effective, provided it pays “termination liability costs” which are sometimes provided for in such contracts. It is unusual to require an act of Congress in order to stop a program. As a practical matter, getting Congress to pass such an act would be extremely difficult.
Consequently, if HR 3625 is enacted, even after the responsible agency determined that a project was no longer useful, contractors would continue to get millions of dollars for unnecessary and unwanted programs until such a time as Congress passed a bill specifically calling for the cancellation of the project and allocating the funds required for program termination.
“The ability to cancel a program for convenience is essential to allow the government to deal with changing circumstances,” said NSS Executive Vice President Paul Werbos. “Requiring explicit Congressional approval to terminate a program for convenience represents a significant shift in power between the Executive and Legislative branches of government that should not be taken lightly.”
National Space Society Position Statement on HR 3625
The National Space Society (NSS) opposes passage of HR3625, which was approved December 11, 2013 by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. This bill, if approved by the full House and Senate, would have the impact of requiring that funds currently reserved for termination costs in the case of program cancellation for convenience be immediately spent on a short list of named programs. HR3625 also states that NASA cannot cancel these programs without Congress first passing a law to that effect.
Although this may initially sound like a good idea, HR3625 violates standards of professional program management and creates a special class of NASA programs that may be more difficult to cancel in the future. As a result, potential termination actions could focus on other NASA programs that are not covered by this Act. Additionally, HR3625 sets a bad example for management across the entire US government, and may lead to further attempts to create a wide range of specially protected programs. All NASA, and all government programs, are normally evaluated regularly on their merits by both executive and legislative branches. Although it is probable that HR3625 would have minimal impact on termination-for-cause actions that derive from poor performance, it would add additional obstacles to termination-for-convenience actions and make such actions more difficult. Finally, this bill potentially could create a “moral hazard” — a precedent encouraging companies to take additional risks if they felt a covered program would be more difficult to terminate.