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Rodgers Eyes FCC Satellite Streamlining Bill's Future After House Floor Defeat

House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is eyeing how to move forward on her Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act (HR-1338) after the chamber failed to pass the FCC licensing revamp measure Tuesday under suspension of the rules. Meanwhile, the panel is set to mark up the NTIA Reauthorization Act (HR-4510) and two other Communications Subcommittee-cleared bills Thursday. The House Appropriations Committee is eyeing a potential markup this week of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee’s FY 2024 funding bill, which would end advance money to CPB beginning in FY 2026 (see 2307140069), subpanel Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told us.

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The House voted 250-163 on HR-1338, below the two-thirds majority needed to pass it under suspension. The vote revealed a clear jurisdictional fight between the House Commerce and Science committees. Rodgers and all Commerce members but one backed the measure. Commerce member Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, didn’t vote. Science Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., ranking Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California and many other committee members voted against it. HR-1338 would require the FCC to issue performance requirements for satellite licensees to meet on space safety and orbital debris. It would also require the commission to set a 180-day shot clock to limit the timeline for reaching decisions on license applications.

I was quite disappointed” that HR-1338 didn’t clear the House’s suspension threshold, especially since Commerce unanimously advanced it in March (see 2303230077), Rodgers said in a brief interview after the vote. “I was aware that the Science Committee had concerns” about the bill, but the chamber parliamentarian’s office “ruled in our favor” and the panel had “no referral on the bill” since it’s “a very narrow” measure dealing with “FCC licensing.” Rodgers argued during floor debate that HR-1338 would make the U.S. “the destination of choice for licensing satellite communications systems without expanding the FCC’s authority.”

Former House Science Space Subcommittee Chairman Don Beyer, D-Va., led floor opposition to HR-1338. If the measure focused on spectrum issues, “this would be a very different speech,” he said. “This bill goes way beyond” the FCC’s “spectrum mission” by giving the commission “unprecedented authority to provide rules on space safety and orbital debris.” The FCC “does not have the sufficient expertise to issue appropriate rules on space safety or orbital debris,” unlike the current NASA-led “interagency coordination” on those issues, Beyer said: That work “is necessary to prevent a fragmented government approach to space activity.

Jurisdictional Fracas

Lucas later emphasized House Science “supports the vast majority of the provisions” in HR-1338, but its “significant and unprecedented" grant of authority to the FCC on space safety and orbital debris would be “a massive overreach.” Congress "has never explicitly granted FCC authority to regulate in these areas, and doing so now is a significant policy decision,” he, Lofgren and House Space leaders said in a letter to colleagues before the vote. “Assigning FCC responsibility to both create these rules and assess an applicant’s compliance would divert resources from FCC’s primary mission of assessing the applicant’s spectrum use.”

HR-1338 lead Democratic sponsor and House Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone of New Jersey countered that the measure “does not infringe on the Science Committee’s jurisdiction or grant the FCC new authority with respect to space safety and orbital debris.” The measure “streamlines existing FCC licensing procedures so that commercial satellite operators” can “easily obtain the rights to launch their satellite systems into space,” he said: It “references space safety and orbital debris … in the context of ensuring that the FCC acts within the bounds” of existing law.

Secure World Foundation Director-Program Planning Brian Weeden emailed he was "a bit baffled at the position some have taken that the FCC should not be doing this" at all. "Either that means that large constellations should have no mandatory debris mitigation or orbital safety requirements, or they will have to apply for a second license on those topics from another agency like the" Commerce Department "in addition to their spectrum license from the FCC," he said. "Either of those alternatives seems unworkable."

House failure to pass HR-1338 means oversight of new commercial activities in space remains "still in limbo, with authority split between the FAA, FCC and NOAA and also no clear answer as to who in the U.S. government has" oversight, Weeden said. "We are still waiting for Congress to take action to resolve this issue, as we have been for several years" now. "There's already clear, consistent, and bipartisan policy guidance for the regulatory agencies to continue their existing orbital debris policies and procedures," he said: "Every U.S. national space policy issued since" former President George W. Bush's administration directed Commerce and the Transportation Department "to implement orbital debris mitigation standards in their licensing of commercial space activities. Yes, the FCC technically doesn't fall under the authority of the White House, but the clear intent is for them to follow suit, primarily because they oversee far more satellites than either FAA or NOAA."

"Appropriately scoped" satellite licensing streamlining legislation that doesn't seemingly open the door to more expansive FCC responsibilities likely wouldn't get opposition from the Space Frontier Foundation or other groups, said SFF Chairman Sean Mahoney. The group opposed HR-1338. Commerce should be the home for oversight of novel space activities, he said.

A new iteration of the bill, with cleared-up language about FCC safety authority oversight, wouldn’t be surprising, said Michael Dodge, University of North Dakota space studies associate professor. There seems to be growing consensus in Congress about giving more regulatory oversight to Commerce’s Office of Space Safety, though the likelihood of one authority for all on-orbit activities is very slim in the near term, he said.

Other House Activity

The House passed three other communications measures Tuesday on voice votes: the Launch Communications Act (HR-682), Securing Semiconductor Supply Chains Act (HR-752) and NTIA Policy and Cybersecurity Coordination Act (HR-1345). The Senate Commerce Committee plans to mark up HR-682 companion S-1648 Thursday (see 2307210071).

House Appropriations may mark up the LHHS FY24 bill this week, but its schedule is still “fluid” amid other chamber priorities before its planned departure Friday for the month-plus August recess, Aderholt told us. He acknowledged significant "reservations" from Senate Appropriations LHHS Subcommittee leaders and congressional Democrats to the proposal to cut CPB’s advance appropriations (see 2307210065) but emphasized that “funding isn’t completely zeroed out.”

Anything could be on the table” for CPB funding once Congress reaches the FY26 appropriations cycle, Aderholt said. “There are some good things that public broadcasting does and so we need to look at” those factors in evaluating its future funding asks. “We had to look at every possible way to cut” down the appropriations level given House GOP caucus priorities “and that was unfortunately something” that met that need, he said. Congress allocated CPB $535 million for FY 2025 in the FY 2023 omnibus appropriations package (see 2212210077). President Joe Biden proposed increasing its annual appropriation to $575 million for FY26.

House Commerce will mark up two other telecom and tech bills Thursday along with HR-4510: the AI Accountability Act (HR-3369) and DiasporaLink Act (HR-3385). HR-4510 would elevate the NTIA administrator’s affiliated role as assistant Commerce secretary-communications and information to an undersecretary level. It would set NTIA’s annual appropriations at $62 million in both FY 2024 and FY 2025. “We must make certain that America, not China, is capturing the innovations in” the telecom industry, “as well as developing and eventually deploying cutting edge technologies,” Rodgers said. The markup session will begin at 10 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn.