Making NOAA Great (Again!)

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

In 1970, Pres. Richard Nixon issued Reorganization Plan No. 4, creating the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Reorganization Plan No. 3, establishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). More than 50 years later, EPA is widely recognized as being a major milestone in the institutionalization of environmental policy in the United States. Presumably, then, shouldn’t NOAA also be considered a great improvement in administering environmental issues facing the United States?

At that time, President Nixon said the creation of NOAA was necessary to approach oceanic and atmospheric problems “in a coordinated way” to “increase our knowledge and expand our opportunities not only in [the ocean and atmosphere], but in the third major component of our environment, the solid earth.” The procedure Nixon used to create this new agency–a reorganization plan–was somewhat unique, as it merged the competences and services located within other existing departments and consolidated them into a new agency under the Department of Commerce.

NOAA’s placement within the Department of Commerce is often explained with a personal and political reason, as its establishment coincides with an important episode in Richard Nixon’s presidency–the Vietnam War. Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior, Walter Joseph Hickel, or Wally, was outspokenly critical of the President’s Vietnam War policy. As the relationship between the two men soured, so the story goes, instead of organizing NOAA under the Department of Interior, NOAA was placed under the Department of Commerce. At the time, Commerce was headed by Maurice Stans, who would resign from that position in 1972 to become the finance chair for President Nixon’s re-election committee, and ultimately was convicted on Watergate-related charges.

Yet, the backstory to the creation of NOAA should not hide a more pragmatic justification for its placement. From an administrative perspective, the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA), an agency that was created within the Department of Commerce in 1965 under the Johnson Administration, made up the core of the newly formed NOAA. It therefore made sense to place NOAA under the Department of Commerce, as major parts of its services already fit within the existing administrative framework.

In the Richard Nixon Presidential Archives, a December 15, 1969, memorandum from James R. Schlesinger, assistant director of the Bureau of Budget, to presidential aide John Whitaker, mentions the difficulties surrounding NOAA’s creation:

“the transfer of the Environmental Science Services Administration from the Department of Commerce would entail a loss of 40 percent of that Department personnel. We agree that the function of ESSA is not integral to the Department's primary mission but the impact of transfer would still be considerable.”

More than 40 years later, following the release of A Focus on Competitiveness by John Podesta, Sarah Rosen Wartell, and Jitinder Kohliduring, this organizational structure was questioned and led to other proposals. During President Obama’s administration, one proposal suggested moving NOAA to the Department of the Interior. Perhaps somewhat expectedly, the proposal engendered both support and criticism. The proponents of the reorganization argued that NOAA would fit better in the Interior because its main mission, protecting oceans as natural resources, aligns with that of Interior. Other voices opposed the reorganization and advocated for maintaining the status quo, arguing that NOAA had conducted its mission successfully under the Commerce umbrella and enjoyed independence and objectivity. Notably, the proposed Obama reorganization was never intended to alter the agency’s mission; it was merely part of a larger effort to reorganize the Department of Commerce.

More recently, the debate about the administrative status of NOAA has been revived. NOAA's scientific integrity was called into question during the Trump Administration, when the former president released falsified information about Hurricane Dorian. In January 2023, Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) proposed draft legislation that would give NOAA full autonomy while providing the agency with statutory authority and independence. In contrast to many other federal agencies, NOAA does not have an organic statute. In other words, despite NOAA’s widespread relevance and recognized importance, Congress has not enacted a law that speaks directly to the agency’s structure, its overall mission and purpose, and ways to go about carrying out that mission. There have been many attempts to streamline the administrative structure of NOAA, but so far none have succeeded. An organic act would rationalize the various competences of NOAA, especially matters related to the nation's oceans and waterways; those matters are, until now, spread among a variety of agencies.

As of now, a profound change in NOAA’s organization remains to be seen. On April 18, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, with Congressman Lucas serving as a chairman, held a hearing to discuss the future of NOAA as an independent agency. Dr. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, NOAA’s former Administrator under the George. W. Bush Administration, stated that as NOAA’s missions were constantly increasing, it is now “vital that NOAA have a congressional charter to ensure these increasing missions can be continuously supported with the necessary Resources”. Tim Gallaudet, Acting Administrator under the Trump Administration, pointed out six major benefits for making NOAA independent:

  1. Stabilize the management and budget of America’s weather satellite programs;
  2. Ensure continuity of essential weather and climate service support to emergency managers;
  3. Accelerate the influx of weather and climate service innovation from public private partnerships;
  4. Improve the management and budgeting of America’s ocean and coastal Programs;
  5. Expand the understanding of America’s oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes; and
  6. Accelerate the recovery of America’s imperiled marine species.

Finally, recognizing NOAA as an independent agency would heighten the agency’s status within the public eye, said Dr. Neil Jacobs, Acting Administrator from 2019-2021. He notes that “most everyone has heard of the National Weather Service, yet not many people know it is part of NOAA, and they are even more surprised to learn NOAA is part of DOC”.

An organic statute for NOAA could provide three major improvements to this administration. If the organic statute specifies that NOAA would function as an independent agency, it would free the agency from any political pressure. This independence would enable NOAA to develop its own financial autonomy while providing the agency with more control over its budget and funding. Lastly, an organic statute could specify the conditions for conducting NOAA's missions with respect to scientific integrity. The changes in the administrative organization require a type of political consensus that is difficult to achieve and the upheavals they are likely to induce make their implementation difficult.