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With a jab at Nixon, Obama proposes moving NOAA to Interior

US President Barack Obama on Friday proposed moving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Interior Department, part of a broader agency reorganization intended to save taxpayers around US$3 billion over ten years.

Much of the focus is on merging six government agencies that deal with business matters at home and abroad into a single department. One of those would be the Commerce Department, which, by a quirk of history, is also home to the NOAA. The way Obama tells it, former president Richard Nixon decided against putting the NOAA into the Interior Department when it was founded in 1970 as a means of petty retribution for criticism of the Vietnam war from then-Interior-Secretary Walter Hickel.

The result, Obama says, is that salmon are managed by Interior when they are in freshwater and by the NOAA when they cross the border into saltwater. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked,” Obama joked in last year’s State of the Union speech, when he first broached the subject.

Exactly what this means for the agency itself is unclear, and administration officials said in a press conference Friday that the details will have to be worked out down the road. In principle, merging NOAA with Interior makes a certain amount of sense. In addition to fisheries, both regulate industry (Interior onshore, NOAA offshore) and conduct a range of environmental and climate research. Administration officials said that the goal of the reorganization is to make agencies more efficient by merging administrative functions and the like, which in theory would not affect the broader mission or individual scientists. But the reality could be messier than that.

All of this assumes that Congress gives the president the authority he is seeking, which would allow the White House to propose government reorganizations at will — subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Such was the practice until Congress revoked the privilege in 1984, and Obama says that the result is a government that has added things here and there but only rarely subtracted and consolidated.

But even if the White House wins that battle, Congress will still have to sign off on the reorganization itself, which is by no means guaranteed. Stay tuned.

Correction: 14 January

This post has been corrected to indicate that the Obama administration’s proposal would save an estimated US$3 billion over 10 years, not annually.

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