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Resurrecting Satellite Bill?

GOP Candidates' Calls to Abolish Commerce Face Long Odds, Raise Space Questions

Proposals from GOP presidential hopefuls Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy to abolish the Commerce Department face long odds of coming to fruition, but space experts told us the calls raise new questions about how that would affect commercial space operations and the operators that the entity currently regulates. Right-leaning groups want a new Republican administration to consider restructuring Commerce’s space regulatory operations. House Communications Subcommittee leaders, meanwhile, believe the chamber can resurrect the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act (HR-1338) to revamp the FCC’s satellite regulatory process.

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DeSantis and Ramaswamy campaigned on shutting down Commerce and numerous other federal agencies. DeSantis said he would also eliminate the IRS and the Energy and Education departments. “If Congress won't” eliminate those departments, “I'm going to use those agencies to push back against woke ideology and against the leftism that we see creeping in to all institutions of American life,” DeSantis said in June. Ramaswamy supplemented his call to do away with Commerce by pledging to “shut down toxic government agencies: Dept. of Education, FBI, IRS, and more (and rebuild from scratch when required).”

The Heritage Foundation-led 2025 Presidential Transition Project, meanwhile, suggests a new GOP administration absorb the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) from NOAA into Commerce’s Office of the Secretary, in which it could be a “coordinating entity for the whole-of-government commercial space policy desperately needed to secure America’s place as the global leader in commercial space operations.” There’s “no unified U.S. government policy on commercial space operations," with the FCC “largely responsible for establishing space policy by default through its regulation of radio spectrum licenses,” the conservative coalition said. A new Republican president should direct OSC and the National Space Council “to establish a whole-of-government policy for licensing and oversight of commercial space operations.” The groups also want a new administration to “break up” NOAA.

The House and Senate Commerce committees didn’t comment on the Commerce proposals.

House Commerce leaders’ bid in HR-1338 to remake the FCC’s satellite licensing apparatus can still make it through the chamber despite pushback from Science Committee members, said Communications Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and ranking member Doris Matsui, D-Calif. The House voted 250-163 on HR-1338 in July, below the two-thirds majority needed to pass it under suspension of the rules (see 2307260037). The measure would require the FCC to issue performance requirements for satellite licensees to meet on space safety and orbital debris matters. It would also require the commission to set a 180-day shot clock to limit the timeline for reaching decisions on license applications.

We’re going to have to” bring HR-1338 back up under regular order and allow for floor consideration under a rule that could result in House Science members and others attempting to attach amendments to the measure, Latta told us. “Other times when we’ve seen a suspension bill go down” to defeat, leaders have been able to get it through by allowing for potential amendments. “This was a jurisdictional misunderstanding” by Science leaders, Matsui said: “There’s a sense that people don’t understand” the FCC “already has complete authority” to handle satellite regulatory matters and “we’ll get that cleared up by the time” the measure gets “brought up again.”

Frequent Target

Presidential candidates frequently place Commerce in their crosshairs. Then-President Barack Obama proposed closing Commerce during his 2012 reelection campaign and wanted NOAA to go to the Department of the Interior. Former Republican hopeful Rick Perry in 2011 similarly named it as an agency he would eliminate.

Commerce regularly comes up in campaigns’ agency abolition proposals because it’s relatively small, said Joanne Gabrynowicz, director emerita of the University of Mississippi National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, in an interview. Outright eliminating NOAA and its weather satellites would be a big political fight, she said: The commercial space industry probably won't be alarmed but will pay attention to such proposals and debate since Commerce has been a target in past election cycles.

Presidential candidates also target Commerce because a lot of what the department does easily could fit into Interior and other agencies, said Brian Smith, political science professor at Texas-based St. Edward’s University. Commerce and the Labor Department were once a combined entity, and since Labor was created, Commerce has been “just hanging out there without a super-clear message or mission,” Smith said.

Key Commerce functions like NTIA, NOAA and the Patent Office can't be axed and would have to find new homes elsewhere, Satellite Industry Association President Tom Stroup told us. “Many people are waiting” to find out who wins the 2024 election before they assess “whether it's likely to happen,” he said: It's likely candidates arguing today for doing away with Commerce would be swayed by arguments for keeping those must-have programs, even if they move to other agencies.

I don't take campaign discussions and the fielding of ideas at this stage particularly seriously,” said Secure World Foundation space law adviser Chris Johnson. He noted pro-business candidates would likely learn about why Commerce and other federal entities are important. There could be value in reforming and streamlining agencies to make them more responsive and agile, Johnson said: “That is the best way to foster commercial space.”

"Abolishing Commerce would require legislation, so the Congress would have the ultimate say over the disposition of Departmental functions," emailed Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Republicans proposed abolishing Commerce after the party won the House and Senate in the 1994 mid-term elections but would have kept OSC and NOAA's weather satellite programs intact, he said.