The Obama Administration continues to explore the potential for moving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into the U.S. Department of the Interior. (n1) But real reorganization of our national environmental governance structure necessitates a consolidated U.S. Department of the Environment.
The President's merger proposal has its limitations. Preserving NOAA's scientific integrity and budgetary adequacy remain prominent concerns, (n2) and due to the looming opposition of Federal employee unions, and a partisan Congress, the proposal faces rough political waters. (n3) But it gets us thinking, too. Stepping back from the immediacy of the who-gets-and-who-loses math of Washington politics, an alternative perspective can be discovered.
In truth, the proposal is not ambitious enough. President Obama -- and everyone else -- wants a federal government that can better compete in the 21st century economy. (n4) Efficiency matters. So why just reorganize NOAA? A meaningful reorganization of environmental governance would not limit itself to only the two agencies implementing the Endangered Species Act.
Instead, we should consider creating a U.S. Department of the Environment. Stop splitting environmental and natural resources responsibilities all over the federal government, and start lumping them together. Begin by restructuring the Department of the Interior, and add the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). OK, toss in NOAA. Boot the Army Corps out of wetlands regulation. Cut the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service from the Department of Agriculture. Transform the Department of Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority. With all these entities consolidated, interagency conflicts would reduce. Eliminating expensive leadership and Senior Executive Service positions could achieve additional savings. Regional and field offices from multiple agencies could merge, saving on rent and facilities expenses.
Environmental advocates fear the potential short-term adverse effects of reorganizing, yet refusing to do so might be worse. NOAA (and other agencies) are already going through the early pains of adapting to a shrinking budget. Agencies are carefully thinking about their "core missions" and setting strategic priorities. As a result, some programs will be downsized or defunded. Regional offices will close. Staff will shrink. (n5) Moreover, if our nation plans to tackle its budgetary crisis, then the pain will soon get worse. In other words, the current path leads to death by a thousand cuts.
In contrast, a thoughtful reorganization of our environmental agencies could result in well-defined subsidiary organizations of greater stature, better equipped to deal with overlapping issues on an ecosystem scale. The Cabinet Secretary who presided over the new Department of Environment would command great respect from Congress, industry and stakeholders. From a raw politics perspective, the effort might also eliminate two common political targets, the Department of Energy and EPA, which would become parts of a greater whole. Our national environmental programs and functions could be rearranged along meaningful lines; just imagine: the National Lands Service, the National Oceans Service and the National Weather and Climate Service; the National Science Service, the National Environmental Regulatory Service, and the National Environmental Enforcement Service. Maybe even an Office of Environmental Partnerships, too.
Sadly, in the current political climate, this kind of rewriting of the American bureaucratic org-chart to consolidate environmental entities probably cannot happen. The status quo is powerful. (n6) Yet this is not a novel idea. In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office evaluated the potential to move the U.S. Forest Service into the Department of the Interior. (n7) Countless intellectuals have envisioned alternative ways to organize or streamline our government. (n8) And there are international models for consolidation, too. (n9)
But in the United States, our Department of the Interior has accurately called itself the Department of Everything Else. (n10) A debate over adding NOAA to "everything else" involves incremental change, at best; creating a new era of environmental governance for the next century requires much bigger thinking.
Maybe one day our nation will give sustainable environmental management and protection the comprehensive approach that it deserves.
Keith W. Rizzardi is a law professor at St. Thomas University, Chair of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, and Special Counsel to Jones Foster Johnston & Stubbs, P.A.
Follow his "Keithinking" about the Endangered Species Act @ESAlawyer
(1) Government Executive.
(2) ESA blawg, but see also, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council.
(3) Washington Post, and Red Lodge.
(4) The Hill
(5) Compare proposals: NOAA 2013 Budget Statement and EPA budget cuts; AP wire story says GOP wants deeper cuts.
(6) See Washington Post.
(7) See, Observations on a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior GAO-09-223 (Feb 24, 2009)
(8) See, e.g. Congressional Research Service(discussing historic efforts); Charles Woods (reorganizing the Federal Government for WWII); Creating a Government That Works Better & Costs Less; the US Ocean Commission and the Pew Oceans Commission (advocating an Oceans entity) and Chris Joyner (rethinking international environmental organizations).
(9) Compare Environment Canada (Air, Climate Change, Enforcement, Environmental Emergencies, Nature, Pollution and Waste, Science and Technology, Sustainable Development, Water, Weather and Meteorology) and Natural Resources Canada (Earth Science, Energy, Forests, Minerals, Metals).
(10) Department of Everything Else