The Secretary of Energy should get more control over the agency’s nuclear weapons programs, not less, the head of the House committee that makes policy for the department’s non-nuclear-weapons programs said Tuesday in a hearing.
“[W]e should be strengthening the Secretary of Energy’s role in managing the nuclear security mission, because [the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)] seems to be going from quasi-independent to completely rogue with each passing year,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), remotely attending a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce energy subcommittee.
Pallone spoke via webcast to his colleagues, and to Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, who was called to testify before the subcommittee about DoE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The full committee chair went off topic to address a controversial part of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
That bill proposed giving the joint Pentagon-DoE Nuclear Weapons Council veto power over the NNSA’s annual budget request. However, Sens. Marie Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Joe Manchin (D-WVa.) excised that provision with a unanimously approved amendment on the Senate floor. The upper chamber plans to vote on the amended NDAA next week.
“[T]his was a really wrong-headed effort that threatens the important long-standing principle of civilian, not military, control over the nuclear weapons stockpile,” Pallone said of the Senate committee’s bill. “And it also stands to upend other non-nuclear weapons aspects of the DOE budget.”
Cantwell and Machin said essentially the same thing before the Senate left town for the Independence Day holiday. The pair warned that if the Nuclear Weapons Council was allowed to force the Secretary of Energy to increase NNSA’s budget request, the money would have to come at the expense of other DoE programs, including cleanup of legacy nuclear-weapon sites managed by the agency’s Office of Environmental Management.
Brouillette, when invited by Pallone to explain why the Secretary of Energy should not have to yield to the Nuclear Weapons Council judgement about the adequacy of the NNSA’s budget, hit some of the same notes that he did in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee before the holiday: that the committee’s original NDAA language forced a member of the president’s cabinet to take responsibility for something she or he could not control.
“Every year, the Secretary of Energy along with the Secretary of Defense must certify the stockpile [to] ensure to the President that it will do what he or she would like it to do, if they needed to use it,” Brouillette told Pallone. “That certification process is signed at the Cabinet level, and it is important that the Secretary of Energy see the entire process for the development of the budget, the operations within NNSA, all of the activities that occur within the national weapons labs in order to remain comfortable that that certification is in fact solid.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee proposed rewriting the rules for developing the NNSA’s annual budget request following a contentious winter of inter-agency negotiations. At the end of these, the White House approved the roughly $20 billion budget request favored by NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, rather than a lower spending level preferred by Brouillette.
In congressional testimony this spring, Gordon-Hagerty justified her aggressive push for a bigger budget to curious lawmakers by explaining that the NNSA had discovered looming funding shortfalls after a year-long internal study of the current nuclear weapons complex — a study the semi autonomous weapons agency initiated itself.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have each authorized the NNSA for a $20 billion budget this year. The House Appropriations Committee this week approved an $18 billion budget, which now awaits a floor vote. Even that is more than $1 billion higher than the 2020 appropriation. The Senate Appropriations Committee had not unveiled a 2020 NNSA spending proposal at deadline.