The agency charged with the critical missions of predicting the nation’s weather, monitoring its climate and protecting its coasts has lacked a permanent leader for one year and 95 days, since Donald Trump was elected president.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never gone so long without a permanent, confirmed director following the installment of a new administration.
Barry Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather, is Trump’s pick to run NOAA, but more than six months have passed since he was nominated Oct. 16. Stymied by alleged conflicts of interest and lacking a formal science background, Myers’s ability to get the votes needed for approval in the Senate is unclear, several individuals familiar with his confirmation process said.
The Commerce Department, NOAA’s parent agency, blamed “Senate obstructionists” for the languishing process in a statement provided to The Washington Post. This was a shot at Democrats whom both Trump and Senate Republicans have accused of filibustering Trump’s nominees and hogging limited time on the Senate floor. A bottleneck has ensued for nominees awaiting confirmation.
But Myers’s nomination has already been confirmed in committee (twice) and was placed in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in mid-December. All Myers needs is a majority vote in the Senate, which Republicans control.
But it’s not clear whether Republicans feel as though they can push Myers through or that it’s worth their effort. “You only have so much [political] capital for rounding up the votes for very close candidates,” said David Titley, who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer in the Obama administration.
Myers has faced questions about the extent to which he can disentangle his personal finances from his slated government post since he was nominated. As NOAA administrator, Myers would be in charge of the National Weather Service, whose data is heavily used by AccuWeather.
Three former NOAA administrators, who served under Democrats, expressed serious concerns about this potential conflict, and whether Myers can truly separate the interests of his family business from the agency he would be running.
Myers committed to resigning from AccuWeather and selling all ownership interests upon confirmation. But Walter Shaub, who was the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration, said Myers’s conflicts of interest remain unresolved. Notably, AccuWeather would still be owned and operated by his brothers, Joel and Evan Myers.
Shaub wrote in a letter to Senate leadership that Myers “could legally take countless official actions as Administrator to enrich himself or his family by advancing AccuWeather’s financial interests.” Now senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, Shaub called for the Senate to “require [Myers] to incorporate in a supplemental ethics agreement as a condition for confirming him.”
Myers’s counsel, Scott Thomas, with the law firm Blank Rome, rejected Shaub’s recommendation, characterizing it as “unfounded, unwarranted, and inappropriate” in a letter to Senate leadership obtained by The Washington Post. The letter, which was distributed to Senate offices by Tom Fahy, a lobbyist for AccuWeather, argued Myers has already done what he needs to do to resolve the potential conflict.
In addition to the controversy swirling about conflicts of interest, Titley said the Myers confirmation vote is also a hard sell because he doesn’t think NOAA and its mission are a high priority for this administration. Trump took longer to nominate a NOAA administrator than any other newly elected president since the agency was established.
“It just kind of looks like getting a NOAA administrator confirmed isn’t at the top of anybody’s to-do list,” Titley said.
Meanwhile, Rear. Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, who is serving as NOAA’s acting administrator, enjoys a great deal of support.
At an invitation-only event celebrating the launch of NOAA’s GOES-S weather satellite in March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spoke glowingly about the job Gallaudet was doing, according to Rich Sorkin, the chief executive of Jupiter Intel, who attended the ceremony.
“The general sense I took away was that people appeared comfortable with the current leadership at NOAA as it exists,” Sorkin said.
Myers’s confirmation vote is still possible. NASA head Jim Bridenstine, who was confirmed last week, had a dramatic, drawn-out nomination process. But if Myers’s confirmation continues to float in the ether for much longer, it simply may not happen, according to several people who were not authorized to speak on the issue. Myers still has the ability to bow out, or the White House may rescind its nomination.
Until the agency has a permanent leader, the administration is “missing an opportunity to shape and reform NOAA,” Titley said. “It’s still a 20th-century agency. Without an empowered administrator, that’s not going to change.”
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