Congress set to bail out Weather Service

The National Weather Service is on track to be rescued by Congress in the coming days, even though lawmakers don't have all the answers they want about a financial scandal that has left the agency short of funding.

House Republicans on Thursday said the mismanagement was part of a “pattern” of abuses by the Obama administration, including the "Fast and Furious" debacle, but Democrats countered that no officials appointed by Obama have been implicated in the scandal.

The Weather Service does not have the money it needs to operate through September — during the height of hurricane season — due to a mismanagement of funds involving three career employees, possibly over several years. The mismanagement involved violating the specifications of annual Commerce Department spending bills. 

The Service has asked Congress to allow it to “reprogram” $36 million in its budget to keep operating without furloughing staff. The heads of the relevant Appropriations subcommittees need to send an official letter to Commerce to make that happen.

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Appropriations Committee cardinal Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who is in charge of the Commerce Department spending bill, said Thursday he wants to authorize Commerce to shift funding around to cover the Weather Service. The approval is likely to come next week, after Commerce replies to 65 questions Wolf’s committee has proposed.

“We want to do the reprogramming ... so nobody can say there has been a storm that has been missed,” Wolf said.

Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Jane Lubchenco testified Thursday that the money would be shifted out of a Weather Radio upgrade program and into an account covering local forecasting and personnel.

On Wednesday, Senate appropriators also said they are willing to allow Commerce to “reprogram” $36 million to cover the needs of the Weather Service.

But Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) noted in a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank that they are not satisfied with the answers they have received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We remain dissatisfied that the Department and NOAA have not known the true operational costs to support NWS's warning and forecast base, and do not know for how long these budget problems have been occurring,” they said. “Given this lack of knowledge, we have little assurance that similar budget gimmicks are not happening in other parts of NOAA.”

Wolf on Thursday praised Lubchenco for acting swiftly last November to disclose the financial mismanagement and start to correct it, but other Republicans at the Appropriations hearing were more scathing.

“For some here this is the latest example of an administration that gives the finger to Congress,” said Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.).

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) also drew parallels to Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to give documents to Congress related to the Fast and Furious gun scandal at the Justice Department. 

These attacks drew a rebuke from Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.).

“None of the handful of people involved came to town with the administration,” he said. “These are employees from an era of Republican presidents.”

“I am not suggesting that this rises to the Oval Office ... but it does seem to be an attitude of ignoring Congress when it pleases those who do so,” Bonner said.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) pressed the point that none of the officials involved in the mismanagement have been fired.

“In the private sector, if you mismanage 4 percent of a budget, you would be fired,” he said

Lubchenco said one employee had been put on paid administrative leave as a result of the mismanagement and that an outside investigator will be hired to probe the matter.