WASHINGTON, May 19, 2005 -- A storm is brewing in Congress about a vital government function Americans depend upon: weather forecasting.
In the last year or so, the government has been making its National Weather Service data more widely available through direct outreach to TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet; NWS officials have appeared for live media interviews; and the NWS Web site, which now gets approximately 5 million hits a day, has become more user-friendly.
Commercial forecasters are not welcoming what they see as direct competition and, with their allies in Congress, are pushing to stop the government from infringing on the service they have built into a billion dollar-a-year industry.
"We work hard everyday competing with other companies and we also have to compete with the government," said Barry Lee Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather Inc.
Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate leadership, has at least 14 such commercial weather companies in his home state of Pennsylvania, including powerhouse AccuWeather. In April, Santorum introduced the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, which states that with the exception of the "preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public," the National Weather Service must not provide any product or service "that is or could be provided by the private sector."
Opponents of Santorum's bill say any limitations on the way NWS information can be provided to the public is squandering taxpayer dollars and potentially dangerous. "Weather for a pilot is essential," said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, who logs on to the NWS Web site before he flies his Cessna. "Forty percent of all fatalities are caused by weather-related factors."
Boyer points out that the NWS is a taxpayer-financed organization -- to the tune of $782 million last year -- and commercial weather companies use its data for their reports.
"It's the principle," Boyer said, "we're already paying for this as taxpayers and then we've got to pay again?"
Democrats have tried to make hay out of the fact that commercial weather company executives have contributed approximately $5,500 to Santorum's campaigns in the last decade.
"To be honest with you, I don't really pay much attention to who contributes to my campaign," Santorum told ABC News. "I do pay attention to when government is doing something that is not necessary that competes with private enterprise, number one; and number two, that does affect hundreds and hundreds of jobs in my state."
Sources close to the NWS say the law is so broadly written that officials there worry that they might be forbidden from sharing any information with the public or emergency personnel.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., worries the bill could even shut down the NWS Web site -- which, during last year's hurricanes, he said, Floridians logged on to 9 billion times. "I don't know what the weather is like in Pennsylvania but I can tell you, [for] our people, knowing the weather in Florida is a matter of life and death," Nelson told ABC News.
Santorum insists his bill will not affect people's access to government weather information during times of emergency.
"What this bill does is stop the mission creep of the National Weather Service," he said. "I do not believe when you have dozens upon dozens of private sector companies doing this and doing it to the satisfaction of the business community that we need to inject the government into this business."
Others argue that taxpayers should never be deprived of any information they pay for.
"There should be no compromise on the freedom of access to information and the public's right to access to that information," said Nelson.