Appropriators in both the House and the Senate are not accepting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "tough choices" for its proposed fiscal 2013 budget.
In budget markups in both houses of Congress yesterday, appropriators pledged to restore funding for several programs that NOAA had put on the chopping block in order to fund expensive weather satellites.
The House Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously approved its 2013 spending bill, totaling $51.1 billion.
Of the $5 billion allocated to NOAA, the House bill restores $4.6 million for tsunami detection buoys and funding for National Weather Service information technology staff, which the Obama administration had proposed cutting by 80 percent.
"When we see the tornadoes in Kansas and Alabama and Oklahoma and hurricanes and tsunamis, we just didn't think that was a good idea," Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said yesterday.
Similar proposals were made during markup of the Senate CJS bill, which was approved by the full Appropriations Committee yesterday, 28-1. While the $51.9 billion spending plan is about $1 billion less than 2012 levels, the cuts did not go far enough to earn the support of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
The Senate bill would restore funding to a host of NOAA ocean-based programs, including fish habitat conservation and coastal restoration; marine mammal rescue grants; and navigation response teams that investigate maritime accidents and hazards impacts to shipping routes and ports.
It also would restore funding for several NOAA research laboratories, including the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory in New Jersey, which had been slated to close. Instead, appropriators suggest shuttering the National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Regional Office in Massachusetts and consolidating it with national headquarters, which they estimate would save $1.8 million in rent.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) applauded the restoration of fisheries research and monitoring funds but expressed concern about the proposed NMFS office consolidation.
"The general consensus from the industry is this move would further strain the already difficult relationship between NMFS and the New England fishing industry by making communication more distant and difficult," Collins said.
Both the Senate and House bills would grant the administration's hefty $916 million request for the Joint Polar Satellite System, which is scheduled to launch two weather satellites in 2017.
However, while the House version would direct that money to NOAA, the Senate measure would transfer NOAA's satellite acquisition portfolio to NASA (E&E Daily, April 18).
"This action is a result of the Committee's long term, intense frustration with NOAA's inability to control procurement costs or articulate reliable funding profiles," CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) wrote in the appropriations report.
JPSS has been reduced from a program first envisioned to have up to six satellites with 13 different types of sensors collecting data for weather forecasts and climate monitoring to two satellites with five types of sensors in order to keep costs to its current $12.9 billion, according to the report.
"NOAA is running out of sensors and satellites to cut, and at this rate JPSS-1 will launch in 2017 with an empty spacecraft bus," the report says.
While acknowledging that NASA has also experienced cost overruns and delays with its own satellite programs, the committee said the space agency is "infinitely more responsive and competent in correcting these deficiencies."
To keep the weather satellites from going any further in the "wrong direction," appropriators want to transfer $1.64 billion from NOAA to a new NASA account called Operational Satellite Acquisition. That is NOAA's entire acquisition budget minus what it needs to continue providing guidance on design and operational requirements for the satellites, according to the report.
Not having "NOAA looking over NASA's shoulder" while it purchases the satellites would save $117 million in fiscal 2013 alone, Mikulski said during the markup, while emphasizing NOAA would still continue to operate the satellites once they are in space and manage the wealth of data they collect.
The Senate bill directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy to work with the Office of Management and Budget to determine the best way to split funding between NOAA and NASA in next year's budget request.