The need for an independent NOAA

There is a story, possibly just a legend, that when President Nixon created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through executive action in 1970, he chose to house it in the Department of Commerce because he was angry with his secretary of the Interior for publicly criticizing his policies on Vietnam.

While that story may or may not be true, here are the facts: NOAA was never a great fit in the Commerce Department, and it has never been authorized in law. Instead, NOAA exists through a patchwork of roughly 200 statutes and executive orders. For an organization of the size and scope of NOAA, this is problematic, and it is long past time to give it legislative authority.

NOAA’s current position within the Department of Commerce and its lack of a cohesive mission creates numerous headaches. It’s a problem for lawmakers because we can’t provide the comprehensive oversight that is our responsibility. It’s a problem for taxpayers because they’re funding an organization with no core mission. It’s a problem for NOAA because they are deprioritized within the Department of Commerce, where they are just one division among many others — all of which fit more organically within Commerce’s mission.

There is widespread agreement that NOAA should be made independent. We’ve solicited feedback from a broad range of stakeholders, including the National Weather Service Employees Organization and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They have expressed support for this effort, and we had a productive dialogue as we discussed their feedback and considered how best to support NOAA and its mission.

Dr. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, the NOAA Administrator from 2001 to 2008 testified at a recent hearing that, “an independent NOAA is needed to be able to address current and future challenges without an antiquated tethered relationship that was poorly conceived from its outset and has frankly, never worked.”

Dr. Neil Jacobs, the Acting NOAA Administrator from 2019 to 2021, has said that NOAA isn’t a good fit within the Department of Commerce: “the additional layers of bureaucracy in the current structure often do not add value to the scientific aspect of NOAA’s mission. NOAA, at its core, is a scientific agency, which is often specialized beyond the expertise of DOC.”

Dr. Tim Gallaudet, the Acting Administrator from 2017 to 2019, has pointed out that the lack of an organic act authorizing NOAA puts the agency’s very existence on shaky ground. “While NOAA has enjoyed bipartisan support since then, executive orders are not guaranteed to endure over successive Administrations,” he testified.  

It’s time to address these problems and give NOAA legislative authority. To do that, I’ve introduced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Act, which will be considered at the Science, Space, and Technology Committee soon.

In addition to standing NOAA up as an independent organization, this bill will clearly state NOAA’s mission in law, ensuring that there is a clear mandate for its work observing our environment, providing weather forecasts, and supporting our maritime economy. The NOAA Act will provide a clean slate to allow NOAA to reorganize and streamline its operations for maximum efficiency.

Importantly, this bill will provide the opportunity for greater accountability, by allowing Congress to engage in a level of oversight which has not been possible due to NOAA’s unwieldy structure. This lack of cohesive direction has prevented us from examining the agency as a whole and has forced Congress to authorize its activities on a piecemeal basis. The last comprehensive NOAA authorization was signed into law in 1992. An agency of NOAA’s importance should be subject to a comprehensive review more frequently than every three decades.

NOAA is a complex agency with a wide variety of functions, and lawmakers across the country have strong views about what NOAA should and should not be doing. This bill doesn’t address that. Instead, it gives NOAA the legislative foundation that it lacks and the focus and independence that it deserves. This is the base on which other priorities for NOAA should be built.

NOAA’s creation and location in the Department of Commerce was arbitrary. After decades of growth and proven value to our country, we can do better now: it’s time to pass an organic act and establish NOAA in law.

Frank Lucas chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

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