WASHINGTON — A bill introduced June 9 by a group of Republican House members would turn the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into an independent agency, but keep its commercial space responsibilities in the Commerce Department.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Act of 2023, introduced by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and 13 other Republican members, would formally establish NOAA into law and create it as an independent agency, rather than as part of the Commerce Department as it is today.
Lucas, chair of the House Science Committee, has been pushing for months on an “organic act” for NOAA, noting that the agency was established by executive order in 1970 and never formally authorized by Congress. NOAA, among its other duties, operates satellites that collect data on terrestrial and space weather, and is also home to the Office of Space Commerce.
“After years of complex organizational challenges, it’s time for NOAA to become an independent agency and reach its full potential,” Lucas said in a statement about the bill’s introduction. “The NOAA Organic Act not only gives NOAA formal statutory authority and authorizes its critical mission, but reduces bureaucratic inefficiencies, streamlines oversight efforts and refocuses core mission areas.”
Lucas and other supporters of the bill have argued that turning NOAA into an independent agency, like NASA, would reduce bureaucracy. An at April hearing about the proposed legislation, three former heads of NOAA argued that having to coordinate activities with Commerce Department officials that often had little understanding of NOAA slowed down their work.
Activities ranging from budget planning to “all-hands” emails “had to go through several different layers in the Department of Commerce, and it’s usually being reviewed by people that don’t really understand NOAA’s mission and don’t really have the scientific expertise,” said Neil Jacobs, who served as acting administrator of NOAA during part of the Trump administration. “To me it felt very unnecessary.”
Tim Gallaudet, who was also acting NOAA administrator during part of the Trump administration, said at the hearing that, as part of NOAA, its funding can be transferred to other parts of the Commerce Department, such as a working fund for shared services. Past transfers to fund work on the census, conducted by the Commerce Department, affected weather satellite programs.
“An independent NOAA is needed to address current and future challenges without an antiquated, tethered relationship with the Department of Commerce,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, who was NOAA administrator during the George W. Bush administration.
Notably absent from that hearing were former NOAA administrators who served in Democratic administrations. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said that none were available to testify.
No members of the committee at that hearing expressed opposition to making NOAA an independent agency, although some raised questions on issues from continuing its work in various topics to additional expense from having to create its own support staff instead of relying on Commerce Department capabilities.
“There are arguments for both NOAA as an independent agency and for NOAA being a part of Commerce,” said Brent Blevins, majority staff director on the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, during a June 7 meeting of two National Academies panels. “We recognize that pulling it out creates challenges, but we think the opportunities created by pulling it out far outweigh the downsides.”
At the April 18 hearing, Lofgren asked for another hearing on the proposal “that would provide a perspective from another point of view so we can balance all viewpoints as we move forward.” There has not yet been another hearing on the topic.
At a separate hearing May 11 about NOAA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, Lucas did not ask the current NOAA administrator, Rick Spinrad, about his views on NOAA becoming an independent agency, but did ask how much of his time was spent in meetings with Commerce Department officials on the budget proposal.
“A lot,” Spinrad responded. He noted the split of his meetings within the Commerce Department versus outside the department on all topics was “50-50.”
While the bill would transfer NOAA out of the Commerce Department into a separate agency, it would leave behind the Office of Space Commerce. That office, which handles regulation of commercial remote sensing satellite systems and is also creating a civil space traffic management capability, would remain in Commerce, with its director reporting directly to the Secretary of Commerce.
“Commercial space is a rapidly developing industry. It will be a key component in the evolution of American competitiveness. It deserves the focus and leadership that can come from raising its profile with Commerce,” Lucas said at the April hearing.
At that hearing, former NOAA leaders said that becoming an independent agency would help raise its own profile, noting that many people even within the Commerce Department don’t know what NOAA is or what it does.
“I think NOAA is facing a big marketing and branding challenge. A lot of people don’t know what NOAA is,” Jacobs said. He recalled that Jim Bridenstine, administrator of NASA when Jacobs was acting head of NOAA, “found out my seven-year-old wore a NASA t-shirt to school, and was laughing at me because I was the head of NOAA.”