NOAA-1: The Battle for NOAA
U.S. Department of Commerce
In 1969-71, I served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Commerce for Policy Development. This is the first of several of my stories about the creation of NOAA.
“My senior staff and I searched constantly for ways to improve the scope and quality of Commerce’s service to the public and the country, thereby to recover some of the department’s prestige lost since its high stature in the days when Herbert Hoover was its secretary. Some of these pursuits brought gains rather easily into our hands, and some left us frustrated in failures. Many produced negligible benefits because of the glacial tempo at which bureaucracy permits change, and all taught us much about the vicissitudes of politics in Washington. A good illustration was the birth of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). created to combine some elements of Interior, the Environmental Science Services Administration of Commerce, and several organizational units from other departments.” (Maurice H. Stans, One of the Presidents’ Men)
In 1968, the Stratton Commission, composed of leading oceanographers, meteorologists, marine biologists, etc., recommended that all of the federal government’s marine and atmospheric research and conservation activities be located in one agency: the “National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA). (In the interest of ease, I later changed “Oceanographic” to “Oceanic”. Since the initials remained the same, no one seemed to notice or care.) These activities were then being carried out by agencies located within the Departments of Interior, Commerce and Transportation as well as the National Science Foundation.
The interagency battle concerning the location of NOAA began late in 1969. There were three leading positions: (1) Establish it as an independent agency, reporting directly to the President; (2) Place it in the Department of Interior, which was supposedly principally concerned with conservation of national resources; (3) Place it in the Department of Commerce, in effect enlarging upon the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) already in Commerce, which included weather observation and ocean mapping services. On behalf of Commerce, we argued that if nothing else, this would cause the least amount of organizational re-arranging and activity disruption. We also pointed out that our department had served as the “breeding ground” for other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, and that when NOAA was fully up and functioning, we could see the logic of then moving it out.
The argument against placing an environmental agency within the Department of Commerce began with such phrases as: “That’s putting the fox in the hen house.”, intimating that there was a basic conflict between national business and environmental concerns. Recognizing that the whole subject of the environment was a political hot potato and that this Administration could not possibly satisfy the environmentalists in terms of budget commitments, I asked why we were so intent in winning this battle- and wouldn’t we be more focussed on our essential mission if NOAA were placed elsewhere? The answer I received from those far more experienced than I in the governmental agency game was: “Expand or die”.
Of the three competing positions, the first, and perhaps most logical proposition, was negated by the fact that the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) was due to become an independent agency and Congress could only handle a limited amount of such complete jurisdictional change. By the Spring of 1970, it was clear that the Interior Department was heavily favored by the White House staff, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the specially appointed Ash Commission which was considering the entire subject of effective governmental reorganization. We had given the matter our best shot, but the votes were against us.
Rescue came from the last conceivable source, the Secretary of Interior, himself. In the Spring of 1970, the issue of Vietnam was major. Protest demonstrations and group visitations became an on-going activity. (At some point in time, there were something like 1500 troops stationed in the Department of Commerce building.) For strongly felt reasons, Secretary of Interior Walter Hickel sent a letter to President Nixon, urging him to “listen to the youth”. Somehow the letter became public and was published locally and around the country. The next thing I knew, Secretary of Commerce Stans called me into his office to say that Presidential Assistant John Erlichman had just called, advising that the President had decided that NOAA would be in the Commerce Department- and that I should get over to White House immediately to initiate the necessary steps.
Possibly I have simplified the reason for the President’s decision. Stans gives it more depth:
“I believe he felt, rightly or wrongly, that Commerce was better managed at the time than Interior. “ (One of the Presidents’ Men)
Hiding my reservations concerning the headaches we would be inheriting, I congratulated the Secretary on his great victory. I grabbed a copy of the Stratton Commission Report and read the highlights on my way. I had never considered the possibility of our winning seriously enough to have really looked at the document. Fortunately the White House people with whom I was meeting had not read it either and the meeting had to do the legal requirements involved in governmental reorganization by presidential Executive Order.
In the days that followed, while I represented the Department of Commerce, Dwight Ink, Associate Director of OMB, was in placed in charge of the inter-agency task force. My impression at our meetings was that the President’s decision had come as an unhappy surprise and I felt a prevailing underlying anti-Commerce sentiment.
There seemed to be the feeling on OMB’s part that the Secretary of Commerce would certainly recognize NOAA’s national importance by transferring to it funds already allocated to, and needed by, other departmental agencies. Since there was very little likelihood of this, I decided to make a special advance effort toward making NOAA effective after it came into our Department. In an early private meeting with Dwight Ink, I said, “Dwight, on behalf of the Secretary, I must tell you that we are not interested in acquiring NOAA unless you can assure us that the necessary funds will be provided to carry out the recommendations of the Stratton Commission concerning research and services. We want to do the job right. Otherwise this entire exercise becomes one big public relations thing, and we’re just not interested.”
Dwight gave me the appropriate assurances.
A year later, our request for NOAA’s budget was cut so severely that very little of the Stratton Commission’s recommendations could even be initiated. Of course.
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