The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is selling its own version of intra-DoE skirmish that ended in January with President Trump approving a much larger raise for the civilian nuclear-weapons agency than expected — and they’re getting buy-in on Capitol Hill.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the NNSA, testified here Wednesday that the semi-autonomous DoE agency’s $20 billion 2021 budget request — 25% above the 2020 budget and billions more than the agency thought only a year ago it would need next fiscal year — is a product of “the regular process” federal agencies go through each year.
It’s a carefully framed version of events reported in January by The Dispatch, which said powerful Republican lawmakers — close allies of the President and leading members of the conservative wing that shores up his political base — pressed the chief executive to give the NNSA the $20 billion budget request Gordon-Hagerty wanted, rather than the $17.5-billion budget request her boss, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, endorsed.
The lawmakers, The Dispatch reported, were moved to action after an official-use-only memo from Gordon-Hagerty to Brouillette leaked to Capitol Hill. In the 11-page document, which so far has not been published by anyone, Gordon-Hagerty said anything less than a roughly $20 billion NNSA budget in 2021 would perpetuate a sequence of events akin to unilateral U.S. disarmament.
Two weeks into Congress’ annual budget hearings, one Democratic lawmaker has tried, without much success, to publicly pit Gordon-Hagerty and Brouillette against one another by separately questioning the senior DoE officials about the events reported by The Dispatch.
In public, the DoE leaders are keeping it professional. Neither denies they had different budget preferences for the NNSA, but neither would be baited into airing the agency’s dirty laundry in an open hearing.
“Our internal executive branch discussions are just that,” Gordon-Hagerty told Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) Tuesday in a hearing of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee. “[W]e worked very closely with the Secretary of Energy to explain our position.”
Last week, facing the same line of questioning from Wasserman Schultz, all Brouillette would do was acknowledge that he had indeed supported a lower number for the NNSA. He characterized the back-and-forth between his office and the NNSA as “respectful and appropriate,” much as Gordon-Hagerty did Wednesday afternoon.
Brouillette even joked, in recent congressional testimony, that he wins some, and he loses some.
On Wednesday morning, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) urged the audience of a full House Armed Services Committee hearing to accept the gentle version of events Gordon-Hagerty and Brouillette have relayed.
“The President was always in support of that full amount” for the NNSA, Turner, the ranking member of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said Wednesday at a hearing that was supposed to be about the Air Force’s budget.
But according to The Dispatch, Trump himself did not authorize the roughly $20 billion NNSA budget ask until congressional Republicans pressed him to do so during a January oval office meeting.
Among those pressing were: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Chair; Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a House Armed Services Member and a high-ranking Republican fundraiser; and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the Harvard-schooled lawyer and infantry veteran who, strongly as he supports Trump, is to the right of even the President, when it comes to military force.
When Trump acceded to the lawmakers’ pitch, vacating the the smaller NNSA budget request that Brouillette and the Office of Management and Budget had backed, it sent the Department of Defense scrambling to find ways to accommodate an NNSA that suddenly needed feeding.
Quickly, the Pentagon settled on requesting funding to build only one Virginia-class attack submarine in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, rather than the two boats previously planned.
That was never part of the 30-year nuclear modernization and maintenance plan that began in 2016 during the Obama administration, and the sudden about-face has precipitated some tense moments in recent hearings with DoD’s top leaders.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee last week that his gut told him the Navy needs more submarines than they now expect to get. At the same hearing Army Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the proposed funding trade, from the Navy to NNSA, was not good prioritization.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee that writes the first draft of NNSA’s budget each year, could agree with Milley on that score.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Kaptur displayed no appetite for the details of DoE’s interagency drama, and no appetite for the NNSA’s 2021 budget request.
“To put it plainly, this budget is not realistic or executable,” Kaptur told Gordon-Hagerty and other senior NNSA officials here Wednesday. “I am becoming more convinced that Congress could write a blank check and NNSA still would not be able to deliver on its budget and schedule commitments.”