Jacobs Nomination Clears Committee, But Questions Remain

Jacobs Nomination Clears Committee, But Questions Remain

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the nomination of Neil Jacobs to be Administrator of NOAA today, but the committee’s top Democrat said she is not committing to voting for him once it reaches the Senate floor.  Jacobs has been acting administrator for more than a year and was in charge during Hurricane Dorian and “Sharpiegate.”

NOAA Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs at his confirmation hearing to be NOAA Administrator before the Senate Commerce Committee, March 11, 2020.

The vote to approve the nomination and send it to the full Senate was done by voice vote, but with three Democratic Senators asking to be recorded as “no”: Tammy Baldwin (WI), Tammy Duckworth (IL), and Richard Blumenthal (CT).

The nomination is for Jacobs to be Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, a position that includes serving as Administrator of NOAA.  He was already confirmed by the Senate for his current position, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Prediction and Observation, on February 18, 2018.

The nomination fared better than several others, where Democrats votes in unison against them in recorded votes.  None were for space-related positions in the government.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (WA), the top Democrat on the committee, said in opening remarks that she would not oppose the nomination today, but was withholding judgment on a final vote until the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce completes a report on the Hurricane Dorian incident.

In September 2019, with Jacobs at the helm as acting administrator, NOAA became embroiled in controversy when President Trump tweeted that Alabama was one of the states that “likely would be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian even though the forecast did not show that.  The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama issued a statement clarifying that Alabama would see no impact from the storm.  NWS is part of NOAA.

“Sharpiegate” ensued where Trump displayed a map to reporters where someone apparently used a Sharpie pen to include Alabama in the warning area and NOAA issued an unsigned letter on September 6 criticizing the NWS for contradicting the President.  Jacobs’s role in penning that letter is at issue. Others in the Department of Commerce acting at White House direction are widely viewed as responsible for the language rebuking NWS, but the Inspector General is looking into who did what.

Cantwell said she would have preferred waiting until after that report is finished, but would not hold up the nomination at this point.

“While I agree that this Agency needs a permanent leader, I also believe we need to find all the facts regarding the performance and suitability of Dr. Jacobs.  So I would have preferred that we had this markup after the Department of Commerce Inspector General report on Hurricane Dorian, but we are here today and I will vote in favor of moving the nomination to the floor, but will remain serious about understanding what happened from the Inspector General before we move forward on this nomination on the floor.”  — Sen. Maria Cantwell

NOAA has been without a permanent administrator throughout the Trump Administration.  The President’s original nominee, Barry Myers of AccuWeather, was unable to win sufficient support to ensure confirmation by the Senate and ultimately withdrew.  Jacobs is the third person to serve as acting administrator since January 2017.


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