Congress to allow National Weather Service to reconfigure budget

June 20, 2012

Congress will allow the National Weather Service to reallocate $36 million to stave off furloughs of 5,000 employees this summer, lawmakers said Wednesday.

But they said they are no closer than they were a month ago to an explanation for why the weather service moved millions of dollars a year that Congress approved for other projects to pay employees, without asking permission.

The decision to allow the practice “does not conclude the committee’s examination into the [National Weather Service’s] long standing budget formulation and execution problems,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) wrote Wednesday in a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.

The senators are chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, of the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, which approved the request, called a “reprogramming.”

The money will come largely from funding for long-term capital projects, including a planned system to provide weather data using advanced technology.

A similar House panel headed by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the practice of reallocating money from one department budget to another without asking Congress.

“We just want to get to the bottom of it,” Wolf said Wednesday. “If they had asked for the reprogramming, we would have approved it. Why didn’t they just come up and ask?”

Wolf said his panel is likely to approve the reprogramming request.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, did not respond to a request for comment on Congress’ action. Since they revealed the budget problems in May following an internal investigation, NOAA leaders have said little except that they were not aware that the practice was going on.

The investigation prompted the abrupt retirement of the weather service’s director, John L. “Jack” Hayes, after the agency’s chief financial officer was replaced.

Union leaders have said NOAA was long aware that the weather service could not pay for critical forecast operations without reallocating money from other projects, but did not address the problem.

“We thank them for looking out for the weather service and going the extra mile,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said Wednesday. “The real question is what happens next year.”

The Senate and House have included millions of dollars in additional funding for the agency in next year’s budget.

After the weather service made a formal request to reallocate the $36 million, Mikulski and Hutchison said they would not agree until they knew why the agency had “manipulated” its budget. But negotiations sped up in recent weeks after NOAA officials notified lawmakers and the union that furloughs, while a last resort, were possible.

With labor costs of $2 million a day, the weather service said it could not pay forecasters and other employees through September, the end of the fiscal year.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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