The Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed a significant cut in 2007 funding for a troubled weather satellite program and has called into question the ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to manage complex programs.

The 2007 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 5672) the committee approved July 13 would reduce NOAA’s $337.8 million request for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) to $187.8 million. The current budget for the NPOESS program is $316 million.

The committee’s bill would also withhold an additional $100 million from the 2007 NOAA budget pending an analysis of alternatives to NPOESS.

The bill is currently awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. The House version of the legislation, which fully funded the administration’s 2007 request for NPOESS, passed June 27. The differences between the two bills will need to be resolved in a conference between the House and Senate following passage of the Senate bill.

NOAA shares funding for the NPOESS program with the U.S. Air Force. The House version of the 2007 Defense Appropriations Act, which was passed June 20, fully funded the Air Force’s $349 million 2007 budget request for its share of the NPOESS program. The Senate version of the 2007 defense budget request, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee July 20, also fully funded the Air Force request for NPOESS.

The NPOESS program has run into significant technical difficulty in recent years, primarily due to problems with one of its sensors. That has driven the cost from an initial estimate of $6.8 billion to the most recent estimate of more than $11 billion as of June, when the program was restructured as part of a Pentagon review.

That review was mandated by legislation known as the Nunn-McCurdy provision, which requires the Pentagon to justify continuation of a program whose costs have grown by 25 percent, or cancel the project.

The completion of the Nunn-McCurdy review was preceded by a May report from the U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general that concluded top NOAA officials had plenty of warning of the development problems with NPOESS, but they did not act to address them until the program had spiraled out of control. NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department.

The cost growth on the program, coupled with the findings of the Commerce Department’s inspector general, “reflect poorly upon senior NOAA management and have eroded the committee’s confidence in the agency to effectively execute large-scale, multi-year contracts,” the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in a report accompanying the 2007 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill. “The committee recognizes the severe importance of the NPOESS program to this country, but given NOAA’s history of passive oversight and the fact that costs have grown with a decline in future capabilities, the committee is compelled to reduce funding because a poorly managed program will never achieve its goals.”

The committee also questioned whether NOAA would have reported the cost growth on the NPOESS program to Congress if it were not for the Pentagon’s involvement in the program, which brought the Nunn-McCurdy requirements into the picture.

The Nunn-McCurdy provision only applies to military programs, and the committee expressed concern that NOAA might not notify Congress in a timely fashion on future efforts like the next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites.

The committee directed the Commerce Department to use funds within the 2007 NPOESS program to hire a nonprofit research organization to study the cost and expected operational utility of NPOESS compared to other alternatives.

NOAA spokesman John Leslie declined to comment on the potential impact of the Senate committee’s proposed cut to NPOESS. In a written statement, Leslie said that NOAA plans to “work with Congress to obtain funding for NOAA programs as we go through the appropriations process,” and noted the importance of maintaining weather satellite data continuity during events like the current heat wave, hurricane season and wildfires.

U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Science environment, technology and standards subcommittee and a vocal critic of NOAA’s management of the NPOESS program, called the Senate appropriators’ action “a strong shot across the bow” during a July 18 interview.

Wu said NOAA’s management of the NPOESS program has put members of Congress charged with overseeing its budget in a difficult position.

“One would wish that withholding the money would solve the problem,” Wu said. But a significant reduction to the 2007 budget request for the effort could potentially drive the total cost of the program higher, he said.