Parents teach it, kids eventually learn it, teachers respect it and businesses build upon it. What is it? Accountability — a quality sorely lacking in our nation’s capital these days.
If you were placed in charge of your company’s largest project, which is now running years behind schedule and billions over budget (more than double its original value), should you be held accountable and accept responsibility for its failure? If you were the administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the primary source of weather data and forecasts for the United States — the answer appears to be no.
NOAA’s largest project right now is a weather forecasting satellite called NPOESS, or the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. This satellite was designed to save taxpayer dollars by replacing two separate existing civil and military weather satellite systems with a single system.
These existing weather satellites currently combine to provide accurate three- to seven-day forecasts for the United States . NPOESS would not only replace both systems but would also improve upon their accuracy — providing a tool that just about any businessman, farmer, pilot, city manager, hurricane forecaster and everyday citizen would appreciate.
Sounds like a productive use of taxpayer dollars, right? Congress thought so too when it authorized the tri-agency (NOAA-Defense Department -NASA) program in 1994. My colleagues and I on the House Science Committee endorsed the idea and looked forward to seeing NPOESS begin operations in 2008.
But today, it’s clear that NPOESS has gone horribly off track. Just 14 months ago, the top managers at NOAA insisted that NPOESS — with a baseline budget of $6.8 billion in March 2005 — was on schedule and facing only minor problems. Today, costs have escalated to an estimated $13.8 billion and the program faces potential cancellation. NOAA’s entire annual budget is just $4 billion dollars, yet this program is at a 100 percent or $7 billion cost overrun.
Without NPOESS, the United States could be left without an important means of reliable weather forecasting once our current satellites stop operating. Hurricane Katrina was a disaster on many fronts, but imagine the devastation had Gulf Coast residents not been given adequate warning of the storm’s approach and path. A new hurricane season is upon us. Americans deserve the luxury of taking their weather forecasts for granted, knowing they are receiving the best information that the government can provide — they do not deserve excuses from federal officials.
When I asked NOAA Administrator Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher at a recent Science Committee hearing how this vital program had gone so terribly off track, I heard the same excuses I’ve heard for the last 14 months. The inspector general investigating the matter told us the admiral even refused to sit in on meetings designed to review the program because he was “too busy” running NOAA. Worse still, NOAA has financially rewarded NPOESS private contractors with $123 million dollars in incentive payments for a job that is anything but “well done.”
While $7 billion might not be a lot of money in Washington, it would have made a huge difference in cities and towns across the United States had it gone toward things like science and math education programs for our students, hurricane preparedness or community policing.
I know one thing for sure — a competent businessman in my home state of Tennessee experiencing severe problems with his/her company’s largest account would not reward unfinished work and would certainly not have to be asked to sit in on meetings seeking to solve problems — that businessman would be leading those meetings. Not so at NOAA.
If parents expect their kids to be responsible for their actions, what kind of example is Washington setting in that regard? Adm. Lautenbacher and NPOESS project leader Gen. John J. Kelly should resign. I have written President George W. Bush urging him to appoint new leadership at NOAA up to the task of saving a sinking ship.
Weather satellites may not be sexy, but they are vital. The president needs to act now to get NPOESS back on track.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) is the ranking member on the House Science Committee.