January 2, 2019

AccuWeather CEO's Nomination to Run NOAA Expires as 115th Congress Adjourns

Donald Trump's nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to run NOAA will expire without action on Thursday with the adjournment of the 115th Congress. Myers' nomination faced pointed opposition from ethics watchdogs and groups within the weather industry due to the nominee's conflicts of interest, including his company's past support for legislation that would have severely curtailed the National Weather Service's ability to provide weather forecasts and data to the public.

The New York Times reported last month that the Senate will not take up Myers' nomination by the end of the session on January 3, and it was unclear whether Trump would re-nominate Myers to the position once the new Congress begins. 

For the foreseeable future, NOAA—and, by extension, the National Weather Service—will remain under the charge of Acting Administrator Tim Gallaudet, who holds a doctorate in oceanography. Myers, who holds a business degree, would have been a rare NOAA Administrator without an academic background in science. Gallaudet's leadership of the agency has so far been uncontroversial.

Myers is one of hundreds of presidential nominees who didn't receive a final confirmation vote before the Republican-controlled Senate. A whopping 47 percent of executive branch positions that require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation remained unfilled during the first half of Donald Trump's term in office, either for lack of a nominee or through Senate inaction. These positions are currently filled by acting officials or simply remain vacant.

Unlike the protracted battles over other controversial nominees to the executive and judicial branches, the kerfuffle surrounding the AccuWeather CEO's nomination to run NOAA came and went fairly abruptly in the days after the White House announcement in October 2017.

The greatest single point of opposition to Barry Myers leading NOAA is the many conflicts of interest that would follow Myers into office. The greatest example of these potential conflicts was his company's support for S.786—the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005. The bill, introduced and unilaterally supported by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), would have effectively privatized the NWS and used the agency to subsidize private weather companies.

Santorum's legislation would have required the National Weather Service to stop issuing public forecasts except for "severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public"—in other words, it limited the agency's public portfolio to emergencies like tornado warnings. All of their other forecasts, products, and data had to be provided "through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers of products or services," turning private weather companies into middlemen between the NWS and the public.

Why would the bill go to such great lengths to dismantle the National Weather Service as we know it? First, some right-leaning meteorologists and weather industry executives routinely criticize the National Weather Service's efforts to directly interact with the public, arguing that the federal government is unfairly competing with private companies like AccuWeather. (Sidenote: this is also the main reason you'll never get an official NWS smartphone app, in case you've ever wondered.)  

The second factor is just pure politics. Joel Myers, the nominee's brother and founder of Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, donated $2,000 to a political action committee supporting Santorum's failed 2006 reelection bid just days before Santorum introduced the doomed legislation on the floor. It's not exactly breaking news when a company's executives appear to have a cozy relationship with their home state's congressional delegation, but the bill was awful enough—and AccuWeather's tremendous potential benefit from the bill obvious enough—that the donation sent up red flags in the weeks and months after its introduction.

A failed piece of legislation from a decade-and-a-half ago isn't the entire reason for opposition to Myers' nomination. But it typifies the potential that exists for Myers to act in ways that benefit companies like AccuWeather. The nominee would enter office with enormous conflicts of interest in tow. If Myers became the NOAA Administrator, he would control the agency that directly competes with his company. Even if Myers divested from AccuWeather, his brothers still control the company and he has a vested interest in seeing his family's company thrive against the direct competitor he would control. 

Donald Trump can easily re-nominate Myers once the 116th Congress is sworn-in on Thursday. The president could also nominate someone else or simply opt to let Gallaudet continue serving as Acting Administrator for the remainder of the administration. Republicans gain two additional seats in the midterm elections, expanding their majority to 53-47. However, the president's party could easily confirm nominees on a simple majority vote—a luxury they had in the previous Congress, as well, indicating a lack of will to expend the political capital necessary to push Myers into the job.

[Top Image: Pierre cb via Wikimedia Commons]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.