Important Hearings on FY 2016 Commerce Department Request – NOAA and NIST

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Publication date: 
10 March 2015

House and Senate appropriators have held important hearings in the last two weeks on the FY 2016 budget request for the Department of Commerce.  Among the topics discussed at these hearings were the weather satellite program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and manufacturing programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The first hearing was held by the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, now chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), following the retirement of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).  Culberson is a self-described fiscal conservative who frequently mentions his support of basic research.   The February 25 hearing received testimony from the Inspector Generals of the Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, and NASA.  At the start of this hearing Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) spoke of the commitment he shares with Culberson to draft a bipartisan bill.  
Todd Zinser, Inspector General for the Commerce Department, told the subcommittee of a potential gap in polar weather satellite coverage of ten to 16 months in FY 2017, as well as the risk of not having a backup for another aging weather satellite. Zinser spoke of the importance of maintaining the cost and acquisition schedule, and the development of data mitigation plans.  There was minimal discussion about this program during the rest of the hearing.

NOAA’s weather satellites received greater attention the next day when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker appeared before the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, now chaired by Richard Shelby (R-AL).  Shelby cited the Administration’s “disjointed” request for the next generation of satellites and the 2020 census (also conducted by the Commerce Department), saying that it “ignores current fiscal realities.”

Shelby told Pritzker that the satellite program is “a primary concern for the subcommittee, “ and said he was deeply troubled by differences in the estimated length of the gap in weather data.  He also complained about the lack of an overall cost for follow-on satellites.  Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was even more critical, referring to previous efforts as a “techno boondoggle,” adding “we cannot have boondoggles again.”

Pritzker told subcommittee members that it is “absolutely critical” that the satellite program request be funded to reduce the risk of a potential data gap in 2017 and beyond.  She also stressed the importance of providing the requested $147 million to develop a high endurance, long range ocean survey vessel.  Replying to a question from Shelby, Pritzker admitted that the previous satellite program “was not so well run,” and then assured him, “today we run a program that is on time and on budget.”  Mikulski asked similar questions, saying “I’ve been NOAA satellite obsessed” and then added when the program does not work as intended that “it knocks the hell out of our budget.”   Mikulski later added that there was “bipartisan support for the necessity of the satellites.”

Also mentioned at this hearing were programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to support manufacturing.  Of note were Shelby’s opening comments about an initiative for two institutes for manufacturing innovation, saying that it “will create a fiscal commitment that we might be unable to meet,” later adding that he was concerned such initiatives “will come at a cost to Commerce’s core functions.”

Pritzker returned to Capitol Hill on March 3 to appear before House appropriators.  Culberson opened the hearing by noting the importance of NIST’s and NOAA’s programs.  Speaking more broadly, he said the department’s FY 2016 request “was not a realistic budget proposal” since the subcommittee’s allocation would not be sufficient “to fund this excessive level of spending.”

Ranking Member Fattah asked Pritzker about NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership.  He wanted to know what could be done “to make sure that American innovation, that is American ideas, are connected to American jobs.”  Pritzker responded that her highest priority was helping the U.S. economy grow, and went on to describe how the recently authorized National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a private-academic program, will enable new technologies in areas such as photonics to be brought to market.  Later in the hearing, Fattah spoke of a meeting he would like to have with Pritzker and industry representatives to talk about future business opportunities in “brain-related health issues.”

The House appropriators asked questions about other programs in the Department of Commerce’s broad portfolio.  As has been true for other hearings of this subcommittee, the proceedings were bipartisan and fairly upbeat.  The subcommittee will have an opportunity to go into greater depth on March 18 about NOAA’s weather satellite and other programs when Administrator Kathryn Sullivan is scheduled to testify.

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call