Supply and demand are fairly simple economic concepts. However, when politicians meddle with the market to favor special interests, they become much more complicated. In order to prop up Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Congress has once again found itself in a legislative labyrinth of its own creation that could cost taxpayers billions and prove dangerous to national defense.
Today, there are only two competitive launch systems, the Falcon 9 (produced by SpaceX) and the Atlas V. The Atlas V uses Russian rocket engines on the first stage of launch, which Congress has banned beginning in 2022. There is also the Delta IV, but that launch system is supposed to be phased out due to it being outdated and expensive. The Senate will soon vote on section 1615 of the National Defense Authorization Agreement for FY 2018, which forbids the Air Force from developing new launch vehicles, restricting expenditures to “the development of new engines or the modification of existing systems.” Section 1615 will prove to be a make-or-break moment for Congress at a time when the federal government faces the decision to define who its policy aims to serve.
In effect, the section will bar the Air Force from working with companies other than Musk’s in the future development of new launch systems because the Pentagon wishes to move away from the Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engines which are utilized by SpaceX’s competitor, EELV. If passed, Section 1615 will make SpaceX the only producer that fits the description of “existing systems” eligible for government dollars.
This case is specifically egregious given Title 10, Section 2273 of the U.S. Code requires “the availability of at least two space launch vehicles capable of delivering into space any payload designated by the Secretary of Defense or the Director of National Intelligence as a national security payload.” In short, Congress could potentially break its own law for the sole purpose of entrenching Musk’s business interest.
SpaceX has been greasing the wheels of Congress to eliminate its competitors for years. Musk himself has given more than $500,000 to Congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle since 2003. SpaceX has also hired lobbyists to influence past NDAAs, expediting the government Russian engine ban.
Fortunately, not all politicians can be bought. A few in the House Armed Services Congress Committee have criticized section 1615 and its implications in the past. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., for example, criticized section 1615 in an open 20-member “Dear Colleague” letter to General Mattis. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has also been critical of SpaceX pushing their private interests through government policy. These members should scrap section 1615 to foster competition within the market for our national defense. This is the only way to ensure fairness and equity among our politics and protect taxpayers and citizens.
Congress should not be beholden to special interests like SpaceX. Section 1615 would stagnate the development of new launch systems by eliminating competition, proving costly to taxpayers and dangerous to national defense. Congress must scrap it before it is too late.
Samuel Postell is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Dallas. He's also a Young Voices advocate.
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