WASHINGTON -- Thursday night's massive earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami warnings that have alarmed U.S. coasts, seem likely to ignite a debate over a previously little-discussed subsection of the spending bills currently being debated in Congress.
Tucked into the House Republican continuing resolution are provisions cutting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including the National Weather Service, as well as humanitarian and foreign aid.
Presented as part of a larger deficit reduction package, each cut could be pitched as tough-choice, belt-tightening on behalf of the GOP. But advocates for protecting those funds pointed to the crisis in Japan as evidence that without the money, disaster preparedness and relief would suffer.
"These are very closely related," National Weather Service Employees Organization President Dan Sobien told The Huffington Post with respect to the budget cuts and the tsunami. "The National Weather Service has the responsibility of warning about tsunami's also. It is true that there is no plan to not fund the tsunami buoys. Everyone knows you just can't do that. Still if those [House] cuts go through there will be furloughs at both of the tsunami warning centers that protect the whole country and, in fact, the whole world."
The House full-year continuing resolution, which has not passed the Senate, would indeed make steep cuts to several programs and functions that would serve in a response to natural disasters (not just tsunamis) home and abroad. According to Sobien, the bill cuts $126 million from the budget of the NWS. Since, however, the cuts are being enacted over a six-month period (the length of the continuing resolution) as opposed to over the course of a full year, the effect would be roughly double.
As for NOAA, the House GOP cuts are even deeper. The House spending bill is roughly $450 million below the president's 2011 budget requests. The Senate Democratic bill would be $110 million below that request. The White House-allied Center for American Progress, argued that the House spending bill would actually cut $1.2 billion from the president's budget requests, likely by taking into account that the bill does not provide NOAA the funding increase requested for the Joint Polar Satellite System.
A request to comment from the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee was not immediately returned.
Either way, the lower funding levels would force major institutional readjustments. An internal analysis put together by the House Democratic Finance committee before the tsunami struck, argued that such cuts "could result in the closure of up to 12 forecast offices that safeguard American lives and property. Each forecast office issues forecasts and warnings to an average population of 2.5 million people."
The proposed cut to the Operation, Research, and Facilities account would also result in a 21 day furlough of NOAA's employees.
The ramifications of spending cuts would potentially extend beyond tsunami or natural disaster preparedness to the post-catastrophe operations as well. In late February, a wide coalition of aid groups wrote Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to warn against the major cuts that the House bill made with respect to global disaster aid (67 percent cut relative to 2010 levels), refugee assistance (45 percent) and global food relief (41 percent).
"It is shocking to imagine that in the next major global humanitarian crisis - the next Haiti, Tsunami, or Darfur - the United States might simply fail to show up," the heads of 29 international aid organizations wrote. "Addressing the drivers of the national debt is wise. Abruptly reducing US humanitarian commitments in order to save less than one quarter of one percent of total discretionary spending is not. These cuts would imperil the longstanding US commitment to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance for those threatened by disaster and conflict."
READ THE LETTER HERE:
UPDATE: In a three-week continuing resolution proposed by House Republicans on Friday to keep the government funded while long-term negotiations continue, lawmakers included $99 million of the proposed cuts to NOAA's Operations, Research, and Facilities budget.