WASHINGTON — A U.S. House of Representatives appropriations panel that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved a spending bill July 7 that would provide just over $900 million in 2012 for a cash-starved polar weather satellite program.
Despite the $429.5 million funding increase recommended for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee would provide only $4.5 billion for NOAA next year, $1 billion short of the administration’s request. In total, the panel slashed $7.4 billion from the White House’s $57.7 billion request for all commerce-, justice- and science-related spending.
The JPSS program was created last year after the White House in February 2010 dismantled the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) that was being jointly developed by NASA and the Defense Department. The program was beset by divergent mission requirements, funding squabbles and technical troubles, resulting in cost growth and a launch schedule that continually slipped to the right.
The administration decided to revert to two separate weather satellite constellations, directing NOAA to develop polar-orbiting weather satellites for civil weather and climate forecasting, while the Air Force would pursue a weather constellation for dedicated military purposes, dubbed the Defense Weather Satellite System.
NOAA had been responsible for funding half of NPOESS, and taking on JPSS by itself required an infusion of cash. Congress appropriated $382 million for NOAA’s share of NPOESS in 2010, and the agency requested $1.06 billion for JPSS in 2011. Congress was unable to pass any of the 12 conventional federal spending bills for 2011, and instead funded the government with an all-in-one spending bill that generally held spending to 2010 levels. A revised 2011 spending plan NOAA sent to Congress in June proposed a budget of $471.9 million for JPSS, a figure that still falls more than $500 million short of what he agency needs for the program this year.
As a result of the 2011 shortfall, launch of the first satellite slipped from late 2014 to 2016, making it highly likely that the nation would experience a gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage, NOAA officials have said.
The $901.3 million recommended by the House panel for JPSS in 2012 is about $105 million less than the agency requested. The $4.5 billion that the bill would provide for NOAA is $103 million less than NOAA received last year, ensuring that other NOAA programs would be reduced or eliminated to increase spending on JPSS. The subcommittee noted that National Weather Service programs and operations would be fully funded but did not reveal funding levels for any other NOAA programs.
Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), lamented the deep cuts his subcommittee had to make but noted that the nation’s growing debt cannot be tackled alone by cuts to so-called discretionary spending.
“There are a number of areas in this bill that, under different circumstances, I would have preferred to fund at different levels,” Wolf said in his opening statement. “However, the House-passed Budget Resolution established our allocation and accordingly this subcommittee produced a strong bill with strategic investments in national security, job creation and science, despite the limited allocation.
“In the absence of a comprehensive plan to rein in entitlements and our crushing debt, we are forced to focus only on non-security discretionary spending to achieve savings — which is only 12 percent of the overall budget request. There is never a convenient time to make tough decisions, but the longer we put off fixing the problem, the worse the medicine will be,” Wolf said.
Rep. Norman Dicks (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, criticized the subcommittee’s allocation for JPSS.
“Cutting the president’s budget request yet again in fiscal year 2012 will only increase the delays and is expected to cause a significant gap in our forecasting capabilities, diminishing our abilities to anticipate hurricanes and other natural disasters,” Dicks said. “It also increases the eventual costs of these critical investments.”
The full committee is scheduled to take up the bill July 13. Appropriators in the U.S. Senate have yet to introduce companion legislation.