Why NOAA Is in the Commerce Department

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Now it's official. In announcing a reorganization of the Department of Commerce to elevate the importance of small businesses, President Barack Obama today confirmed the rumored political shenanigans surrounding the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 4 decades ago.

Commerce secretaries have long bemoaned the presence of NOAA, a scientific and fisheries agency, in a cabinet department devoted to promoting U.S. trade and economic development. But beltway insiders knew why: President Richard Nixon was furious when his interior secretary, the politically volatile Wally Hickel, took aim at the Administration's Vietnam War policy. So Nixon punished him by not making the newly created NOAA part of the Interior Department, which already housed the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here is Obama's version, employed as an example of the need to eliminate redundancy and make the federal government work more efficiently:



Give you a few examples. There are five different entities dealing with housing. There are more than a dozen agencies dealing with food safety. My favorite example—which I mentioned in last year's State of the Union address—as it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. (Laughter.) If you're wondering what the genesis of this was, apparently, it had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War. And so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place.


Posted in Environment, Earth