Those watching Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testify before the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies on the president’s budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 may at times have been able to anticipate his answers.
As the secretary fielded questions from worried Democrats regarding agencies and programs the White House proposed to eliminate or to drastically cut, his responses remained consistent. Whether answering queries about the elimination of the Sea Grant Program, the Minority Business Development Agency, or the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program, Secretary Ross was unwavering in his answer that tradeoffs had to be made to fund the administration’s priorities, “and with the big increases in defense and military and national security, cuts have to be made somewhere.”
Ranking Member Nita Lowey (NY-17), whose district was hit by Superstorm Sandy, wasted no time in addressing the proposed elimination of NOAA programs that help scientists understand and prepare for environmental changes that put communities at risk. She referenced NOAA’s Sea Grant Program and Coastal Zone Management Grant Programs, calling their elimination “dangerous” when combined with other decreases to NOAA climate research. Representative Derek Kilmer (WA-6) pressed the issue as well, highlighting Regional Coastal Resilience Grants, but Mr. Ross’s answer did not stray from the issue of prioritization, calling such programs “lower priority.”
Representative Matt Cartwright (PA-17) highlighted cuts to programs essential for scientific research, saying “you can’t leave the work to the scientists but not give them the resources they need to do that work.” He went on to ask about the 52 percent decrease in funding to the National Water Model (NWM), which significantly improves flood forecasting. Mr. Ross defended this as “an affordability decision, not a policy decision” and shared that no centers would be closed. Rep. Cartwright also highlighted the Regional Climate Centers, which work with local communities to solve problems brought on by climate change. Despite the 82 percent proposed cut, the secretary again stressed that no centers would be closed, “it’s just the level of activity will be diminished somewhat,” with the most focus on priorities.
Secretary Ross did highlight two areas of focus within NOAA: weather research and fisheries. He referenced the agency’s prioritization of weather research at the National Weather Service and the National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service. When Chairman John Culberson (TX-7) pressed the secretary on how he would reduce the $30 billion price tag for the three biggest weather satellite programs over the next 15 years, Secretary Ross shared the complexities of the issue, from the dangers of “catastrophic failure” to the need for forecast accuracy and reliability to bulk buys and problems in the private sector. He praised the agency, saying they had done “a pretty good job balancing all of these variables.”
Mr. Ross also highlighted the role of fisheries, saying he’s “obsessed with the problem that we have a $13 billion … trade deficit, in fish and fish product … so that’s one of the areas we’re going to be focusing very much on.” Representative Steven Palazzo (MS-4) raised a controversial issue, asking the secretary about the shortened three-day season for recreational red snapper fishers in Gulf waters. Secretary Ross pledged he would request the underlying data the agency used to make the decision and would work “to balance the needs of the recreational [fishers] with the needs of the commercial [fishers].”
Both sides of the aisle acknowledged the critical importance of the Department of Commerce to the U.S. How the department could continue to successfully function to support our nation’s economy, workforce, and national security with the cuts proposed in the president’s budget request remains an open question.