The Intersection

NOAA Doesn’t Exist

According to, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them.

As it happens, many of my good friends and colleagues–natural and social scientists–reside within this federal agency to protect oceans, coasts, human health, biodiversity, commerce, natural resources, and so on. Their work supports education and stewardship, enhances economic security and safety, studies atmospheric and climate variability, and manages our nation’s coastal and marine interests. And yes, the good folks at the National Weather Service who deal with storms like hurricanes are housed within NOAA.

So I just don’t understand why NOAA doesn’t even exist. Sort of.

You see, the agency was formed by executive order in 1970–created as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. But the thing is, NOAA has never had a statutory basis for its existence or to conduct its activities and missions. Instead, it has operated under 200 different authorizations. Really.

A NOAA Organic Act would establish an overarching national policy. It would create standards for federal, state, and territorial agencies to follow and reorient national and regional decision-making bodies. It would strengthen the agency by helping achieve better management through an ecosystem-based approach.

So it’s time for Congress to authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s well past time. It’s nearly four decades overdue…



  1. #1 Sciencefan
    April 28, 2008

    Good call, wait until the next administration.

  2. #2 John
    April 28, 2008

    I couldn’t believe this so I looked it up and what you write is true! Unbelievable. How do we get this Organic Act passed?

  3. #3 David Bruggeman
    April 28, 2008

    But the Bush Administration introduced a NOAA Organic Act in at least the 108th and 109th Congresses. The House passed one in the 109th, but it stalled in the Senate. So it’s not for lack of trying on behalf of the Bush Administration.

  4. #4 gribley
    April 28, 2008

    Interesting. EPA is in a similar situation; it never had an enabling act, but was cobbled together by an executive order (from Nixon, back in the days when Republicans could be moderates and do useful work).

    I haven’t thought about it much, but it’s not clear to me that it’s worth passing an enabling act. For one thing, Congressional authority to do so is extremely limited, and it would presumably have to be based on the Commerce Clause. It would clarify things, but it might open up a can of worms in the subsequent discussion about what the goals and priorities are. Sounds risky, but maybe more risky for EPA than for NOAA.

  5. #5 Justin M
    April 28, 2008

    Do you know if NIST has the same problem, also being in the Dept. of Commerce?

  6. #6 Eric Roston
    April 28, 2008

    NOAA makes up something like 2/3 of the Commerce Department budget. Most of the Commerce Department doesn’t exist! (Something I long suspected anyway.)

  7. #7 David Bruggeman
    April 28, 2008

    NIST is the successor to the National Bureau of Standards, and has statutory authority. Not sure when it was initially enacted (probably 1987-88, which was around the time of the name change). This URL is for the current edition of the law.

  8. #8 Bob Palmer
    April 28, 2008

    Bruggeman is right about the Administration supporting a NOAA Organic Act, but it was a pretty vacuous “house-cleaning” document which just consolidated existing authorities. A real Organic Act would give clarity to the agency’s missions and responsibilities. Why don’t you guys start a real discussion on this site about exactly what those M/R should be? For instance, where’s the division between public and private weather services? How and when does NASA pass off its research satellites to NOAA’s operational satellites? Where does NOAA fit exactly in the Nation’s environmental monitoring enterprise? What data should NOAA be required to collect and analyze?

  9. #9 David Bruggeman
    April 28, 2008

    With the exception of the last question, I’m not sure that an Organic Act for a single institution is the best place to answer them. The public/private question should reflect administration priorities, and would be better for a national weather policy. The NASA/NOAA handoff is better left to an interagency MOU. NOAA’s role in environmental monitoring enterprise is better fit for a national environmental policy.

    Why? In order to allow for flexibility in these policy areas. I don’t think it’s appropriate to lock some of these policy choices into law. It’s fine to obligate the agency to be responsible for certain things by law, but drawing some of the lines Palmer would like to in law I think would be too restrictive in the future.

    If the Congress can’t pass a bare-bones act, why would it be easier to pass a more weighty one?

  10. #10 Bob Palmer
    April 29, 2008

    David, I would suggest that if we’re only willing to pass a bare-bones Organic Act, and to put aside the difficult policy choices, why bother? In the absence of policy clarifications, the current mish-mosh of authorities will serve perfectly well.

    Remember that an Organic Act is not permanent. Congress can amend it as circumstances change, as is evident from the long history of amendments to the NASA Organic Act. Despite these tweaks over the years, the NASA Organic Act includes some important policy positions that have endured rather well for 50 years.

    I’m not close enough to the situation to know why the Senate didn’t move the “bare-bones” NOAA Act. Maybe there just wasn’t enough substance there for them to really care about it. If the legislation actually did something, maybe an interest group or two or a Senator or two would get engaged.

  11. #11 Luiz Ramos
    April 30, 2008

    Good subject.

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