Proposed NOAA transfer will need Congress' help

Posted: Jan 18, 2012

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Climate change

The president's bid to bundle the agency in charge of weather forecasts, fisheries and atmospheric science into the Interior Department would require broad legislative action from Congress, a potential stumbling block in an election year sure to heighten partisan sniping.

Obama's proposal last week to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration out of the Commerce Department created a splash among environmentalists, fishermen, labor leaders and some lawmakers but was viewed by some as a rational plan to cut costs and merge agencies with similar missions (Greenwire, Jan. 13).

NOAA has no organic legislation, which codifies an agency's creation, so no congressional action would be needed to change its organization. But observers said the move would require Congress to amend a dizzying array of laws giving the Commerce secretary authority over fisheries, endangered species and coral reefs, among other resources not currently under Interior's grasp.

Prominent among those laws is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which tasks the Commerce secretary as the key official on approving fishery management plans.

"With the change of authorities, those laws may have to be opened up and amended, making them vulnerable to further drastic and potentially harmful changes," said Emily Woglom, director of government relations for the Ocean Conservancy.

In addition, some have noted the switch could spark turf wars in Congress over who would oversee NOAA's roughly $5 billion budget and whether oversight would remain primarily within the Senate Commerce Committee instead of shifting to other panels.

Bill Wicker, spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said any jurisdictional shift would have to come from the chamber's Rules panel. He said that while the proposal won't likely be at the top of the Senate's to-do list when it returns, the issue may be ripe for an oversight hearing.

"NOAA and Interior already cooperate on many issues -- the marine fisheries industry, for instance, certain [outer continental shelf] matters, the Marine National Monument in Hawaii, etc." he said in an email. "Without knowing specifics, we'll say that, conceptually, this reorganization makes sense to us."

Other lawmakers, including ENR Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), said they supported the move at first glance.

"We support efforts to streamline the federal government," said Jill Strait, a Hastings spokeswoman. "However, the goal should be making government work better for the American people and small businesses, not making changes that could impose new regulatory burdens and uncertainty."

Some members of the president's own party, including Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), last week said they were troubled by the possibility of NOAA being buried within an Interior agency that already oversees one-fifth of the nation's landmass and many activities in federal waters.

"We assume there will be many congressional briefings and meetings," said Julie Hasquet, a Begich spokeswoman. "There is a lot of information and he is reviewing all of the details."

But details of the integration won't likely be available until after Congress gives the president broader consolidation powers, said Jeff Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget who was recently named as the agency's acting director.

Some speculated Obama would abandon the NOAA proposal -- which is part of a broader White House consolidation plan that would fold six other business and trade agencies into one -- if he is unable to achieve that larger goal, which is the bulk of a package expected to save $3 billion in government spending over the next decade.

Obama proposed merging into one agency Commerce's core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

Observers questioned whether House Republicans, while supportive of shrinking the government, would give the president the consolidation powers he seeks to allow that reorganization to move forward.

Neither the White House nor OMB responded to requests for comment yesterday on whether the president needs congressional approval to move NOAA.

Enviros unconvinced

Environmental and commercial fishing groups viewed the NOAA move as a postscript to the administration's plans to consolidate the rest of Commerce.

"It is critical for the White House not to treat NOAA and our nation's fisheries as an afterthought in a reorganization plan motivated first and foremost by a desire to bring together the major agencies that focus on business and trade," Matt Tinning, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which represents commercial fishers. "Rather, the well-being of our fishermen, the health of our fisheries, and the future of our ocean must be directly considered on their merits."

Obama must also convince his environmental constituents that the move will allow NOAA to retain its scientific and administrative independence in an Interior agency charged with both resource protection and extraction.

"Clever leaders have long recognized that monkeying around with how the government is organized can be a way to slip through fundamental and durable changes that would be too controversial to approach head-on," David Goldston, government affairs director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a weekend blog post.

He pointed to a Republican proposal to move regulation of oil refineries from U.S. EPA to the Energy Department, an agency tasked with promoting the energy industry.

"This is especially unfortunate because this reorganization proposal isn't even driven by a desire to change ocean policy for better or ill," Goldston said. "It's collateral damage from an unrelated reorganization."

In addition, some view NOAA as an independent check on Interior actions involving oceans policy, energy development and endangered species issues. Disputes between the two are resolved by the White House.

"If NOAA is a division of Interior, the Interior secretary can just shut NOAA up," Goldston said.

Tinning, like some environmentalists, said the president should consider the findings by two major commission reports that looked favorably on the concept of giving NOAA freestanding authority.

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