National Weather Service employees got some heartening news today as two key senators signaled approval of the agency’s request to redirect money in this year’s budget to cover a funding shortfall for local forecasting offices. A similar signoff is still needed from House members to head off the threat of furloughs. Richard Hirn, a lobbyist for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, reiterated that he expects a happy ending, but not before a hearing tomorrow morning by the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency.
Subcommittee members “have very serious questions and they are going to get some explanation first before they say anything,” Hirn said. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce Department agency that includes the weather service, did not reply to an email seeking comment.
The lead witness at tomorrow’s hearing will be NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Dan Scandling, a spokesman for the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., wouldn’t venture a prediction on when his boss will make a decision on the weather service’s request, but said the panel will “walk through” it tomorrow.
In a June 1 notification to the employees organization, the weather service warned of possible furloughs if lawmakers didn’t approve the request to “reprogram” almost $36 million in this year’s budget, the bulk of it for the forecasting offices. That request has been stymied by lawmakers’ anger over the recent findings of a NOAA internal investigation that weather service managers improperly moved money between different accounts in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without getting the necessary congressional approval.
Apart from scrutinizing the reprogramming request, tomorrow’s hearing is “going to be about what happened, why it happened and what they are going to do to fix it,” Scandling said.
Leaders of the comparable Senate appropriations subcommittee said today that this year’s request appears valid. The panel “remains committed to supporting NWS’s critical mission of forecasting and warning about severe weather, and supporting the men and women who work every day to fulfill that mission,” Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. “Therefore, we approve the reprogramming proposal to ensure that NWS forecasting operations are not disrupted.”
Mikulski chairs the subcommittee; Hutchison is its top Republican. In their letter, however, they complained of long-standing budget problems at both NOAA and the weather service. Accordingly, the panel is conducting an independent review and has also been in touch with the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department “to help resolve these outstanding issues.”
[This post has been updated]