A day after the Obama Administration sent its FY 2014 budget to Congress, the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the Commerce Department request. Calling the Commerce Department “a major economic engine,” Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) framed the hearing along three major lines: advancing America’s interests, avoiding “techno-boondoggles,” and ensuring “we get value for every nickel we spend.”
Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank and Todd Zinser, Inspector General of the Commerce Department, testified before the subcommittee. The hearing was congenial, with most of the critical questions centering on the weather satellite system.
No questions were asked about the FY 2014 request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for which the Administration requested an increase of 23.6 percent over FY 2012. In opening remarks, Mikulski called NIST a “critical leader” in strengthening national competitiveness and having “a spectacular role in technical competency” in working with private industry, sentiments shared by subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL).
Mikulski’s first question to Blank concerned the modernization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather forecasting capabilities. Mikulski spoke about frequent references to the European Model during last year’s storms (“we hear about it all the time”) and the much-troubled program to build new weather satellites. Blank described the thinking behind a reorganization of the weather service, and gave guarded assurances that the satellites are on track. She called the FY 2014 request for the satellite program “absolutely crucial.”
Initially Shelby was quite critical of the proposed National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, for which a one-time appropriation of $1 billion was requested (see FYI #65 for a description of this program.) Under this proposal, Blank explained, 15 innovation centers would be established with the participation of public and private interests focusing on a particular technology, such as high-sensory robotics or new materials. The requested funding would be distributed over a series of years. Germany has thirty such institutes, Blank said, that have been “very effective” in assisting German manufacturing. “We essentially want to copy and improve on that model,” she said. Shelby seemed to warm to the idea, telling Blank that he wanted more information on the proposal. Three other senators asked about this program, with some of the discussion centering on the possibility of establishing a center in a particular state.
Shelby, like Mikulski, expressed deep concern about the weather satellite program and the possibility of a data gap before a replacement satellite is in place. Catching his attention was the possibility of using Chinese data during the interim, and the likelihood that it would increase the accessibility of U.S. intellectual property. Blank agreed, replying “there is no question.” Mikulski entered the dialogue at that point, stating “I just want to say that this committee is going to focus on weather.”
Other topics covered during this hearing were fisheries on the West Coast, Alaska, and New England (where a fishery disaster has been declared), and a program to remove Japanese tsunami debris from coastal beaches.
Inspector General Zinser testified at the hearing’s conclusion. He identified four areas of concern: the weather satellite program, the 2020 census, management changes at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and, more generally, operational control and oversight across the Commerce Department. Zinser testified that “there’s less than a 50 percent chance” that the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series (GOES-R) will be launched by its October 2015 scheduled date. After a final discussion about cyber-security and conference spending Mikulski adjourned the hearing.