Friday, January 13, 2012

NOAA Snark

Presidents usually avoid being critical of predecessors. But Barack Obama was yucking it up about Richard Nixon today as he announced his government reorganization plan:
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.
Obama may have heard the story from William Daley, a Clinton Commerce secretary who just quit after a year as White House chief of staff. If you look at the dates alone, the accusation seems to add up. After the Kent State shootings in May 1970, Interior secretary Wally Hickel wrote a letter to Nixon criticizing him over the Vietnam war and urging him to spend more time listening to young people. That Nixon seethed for months is well known. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was created as part of the Commerce department in October. Nixon fired Hickel in November.

But there's a lot more to the story than that. According to NOAA's official history, the new agency was parked at Commerce on the recommendation of Commerce secretary Maury Stans, a Nixon friend since their Eisenhower years, in anticipation of a dramatic plan to streamline the federal government not unlike the one Obama proposed today. Nixon's was the brainchild of Roy Ash, who died last month:
One of [Ash's] proposals was to replace the Department of Interior with a new Department of Natural Resources. One of the elements of the Department was to be a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which would combine some elements of the Department of Interior with the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) of the Department of Commerce. Then Secretary of Commerce, Maurice Stans, noting that ESSA would comprise more than two-thirds of this new Agency (some 10,000 employees and an estimated FY 1970 budget of approximately $200 million) countered with a proposal to, at least initially, consolidate and house NOAA within Commerce and transfer it to the proposed Department of Natural Resources at a later date.
NOAA's historians attribute Commerce's win to the logic of Ash's proposed natural resources department (an especially good idea today), Stans' persuasiveness (which I experienced many years later when he was raising money for the Nixon library), and "perhaps" tensions between Nixon and Hickel. Given all that, it looks as if 44 took a cheap shot at 37. If Nixon had succeeded in getting his reorganization plan through a Democratic Congress, NOAA would have ended up right where efficiency wizard Ash wanted. When the Republicans get done with his proposals, we'll see if Obama's still laughing.

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