The Department of Commerce (DOC) touches your life in more ways than you’d imagine, impacting areas from trade to economic development to weather forecasting. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science held a hearing to discuss the president’s budget recommendations for the DOC for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. Senators from both sides of the aisle were concerned with the proposed steep cuts, which represent a 15.8 percent decrease from FY 2017 enacted levels and highlighted programs, including Sea Grant, that have tremendous returns on investment for their states.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency largely responsible for the nation’s fisheries, oceans, and weather and climate monitoring, is housed within the DOC. In his written testimony, DOC Secretary Wilbur Ross highlighted how proposed budgetary prioritization of some bureaus and programs means reduced funding or termination for others. He specifically referenced cuts to NOAA’s Tsunami Research and Operational Warning program and terminated investment in the Mid-Range Weather Outlooks and Office of Education. The request also proposes reductions to external grant programs; the secretary referenced elimination of the Sea Grant Program and reductions to the Coastal Zone Management and Regional Coastal Resilience grant programs. These suggested cuts were widely disparaged by committee Democrats; Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) shared how the Sea Grant Program, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the National Weather Service impact her state’s watermen, tourism, and small businesses, saying, “I believe that the money saved from those cuts would be vastly outweighed by the damage done to our rural communities and small businesses that depend on these programs.”
While Republicans recognized the importance of balancing the budget, Chairman Richard Shelby (AL) also expressed concerns with the budget recommendations. The proposed FY 2018 budget would reduce funding for water-related hazard research, including NOAA’s newly created National Water Model, which vastly improves flood forecasting. Secretary Ross ensured the room that those efforts would still be sustained in the proposed FY 2018 budget, saying, “We believe that it has adequate funding to continue at a reasonable level.” Chairman Shelby also expressed deep worries over the 45 percent cuts to NOAA’s Polar Follow On (PFO) satellite program, which supplies the United States with 80 percent of the data needed to predict extreme weather.
While the hearing was supposed to be centered around the president’s budget request, the committee also scrutinized the agency’s recent reductions in the Gulf’s red snapper recreational fishing season. Senator John Kennedy (LA) fiercely interrogated Secretary Ross regarding this regulation (which reduced the season down to only three days), and he suggested Gulf states should have more authority over this fishery. Chairman Shelby shared this sentiment, saying that he “find[s] NOAA’s determination unacceptable.”
Like other appropriations hearings this week, there was clearly bipartisan concern over the proposed cuts to programs. Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) bluntly stated that “the budget is abysmal,” calling it a “budget to diminish America.” It remains to be seen how Congress will appropriate funds, but clearly this committee was displeased with the president’s budget recommendations.