Appropriators Review Department of Commerce

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Publication date: 
29 April 2009

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has been on Capitol Hill twice within the last week to testify before the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, and Science.  While the department’s FY 2010 budget will not be submitted to Congress for another week or so, Senate subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulsi (D-MD) called the  April 23 hearing the beginning of the subcommittee’s 2010 budget hearings.

Appropriators had many questions for Secretary Locke about several programs that have experienced management problems, while praising the department’s science and technology programs.  Mikulski’s opening statement touched on President Obama’s agenda to “reinvigorate our science programs,” saying that the department  had suffered from “unrealistic funding for science programs and labs, almost zero funding for technology and manufacturing partnerships with industry.”   She described Commerce as the “innovation engine for this nation,” saying “no other Department in our government has all the elements in one place to keep America competitive in this new century.  It starts with Commerce’s sciences and research programs, finding new ways to solve tomorrow’s problems.”  Mikulski added, “As a leader in America’s competitiveness, Commerce needs realistic funding, proper management and oversight to keep this nation scientifically relevant and technologically innovative in the global marketplace.”  Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the subcommittee’s Ranking Republican, said “through the Department of Commerce, our country is able to maintain high technical standards, as well as staying on the cutting edge of scientific research – all of which are fundamental to our nation’s leadership in the global market.”

Secretary Locke’s written statement described the Obama Administration’s plans for the department’s science and technology programs:

“This budget supports the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) advanced measurement and standards activities that are critical to the Nation’s technology infrastructure. The President’s plan for investments in science includes doubling research funding within NIST over 10 years. The request includes $125 million for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership program to enhance the competitiveness of manufacturers by facilitating the adoption of efficient manufacturing processes. The Technology Innovation Program will receive $70 million to invest in high-impact research that will tackle critical national needs and advance innovation.  These two programs had been proposed for termination in the FY 2009 President’s Budget. In addition, the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] includes $220 million for NIST’s scientific research activities and lab equipment and $180 million for construction of NIST facilities.”

When compared to other troubled programs - the upcoming census, NOAA’s satellite program, and the US Patent Office -  there was little discussion during the question-and-answer part of this hearing on Commerce’s S&T programs.  Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke of the America COMPETES legislation’s provision on NIST funding, and how there was strong bipartisan congressional support, and support throughout the nation, for “moving at a good rate” the agency’s funding.  Mikulski described her pride in having NIST, NOAA, and the Census Bureau headquartered in her State of Maryland, and in a NIST civil servant being a Nobel Prize winner.  She spoke favorably about NIST as a place where management procedures are working.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science met yesterday.  Again, most of the discussion at this hearing focused on the department’s more troubled programs, with subcommittee chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) telling Locke that “sometimes  . . . the squeaky wheel gets the grease” in the subcommittee’s hearings.   Mollohan expressed much concern about global climate change and its many manifestations, saying that only the Commerce Department was capable of providing a leadership role.  He agrees with the Administration’s proposal to establish a National Climate Service, Locke later saying that he felt that NOAA would be the appropriate  agency to take the lead role in climate change.

Other questions during the House hearing dealt with the Commerce Department’s role in education and encouraging students to go into the sciences.  Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) spoke of NIST having a “terrific track record of investing in peer-reviewed scientific research” that resulted in great benefits, later saying that the agency does “wonderful work.”

Both Mikulski and Mollohan indicated that they would have written questions for Secretary Locke after the Administration sends its FY2010 budget request to Congress.