On Wednesday, as Congress prepared for final negotiations on a must-pass bill that could increase the Pentagon’s say over civilian nuclear-weapons programs, the former head of those programs said the Defense Department needs less, not more, sway over such matters.

The Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Security Administration (NNSA), a semi autonomous DoE agency devoted to nuclear-weapons stewardship, compare notes about nuclear weapons procurement in the meetings of the interagency Nuclear Weapons Council. 

Most of the voting seats on the council belong to the Pentagon, making it “just an invitation for the [Department of Defense] to constantly grade the NNSA’s homework without its homework being graded in a reciprocal sort of way,” Frank Klotz, the retired Air Force general and NNSA administrator under the Obama administration, said in a webcast hosted by the Washington-based Mitchell Institute non-government group.

Klotz, whose 2018 departure from the NNSA capped a second stint in government service, spoke only hours before the House of Representatives formally voted to go to conference with the Senate on the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NNSA), which sets policy and spending limits for defense programs including the NNSA.

Both the House and Senate versions of the latest NDAA authorize the NNSA to spend the roughly $20 billion it requested for fiscal year 2021. The Senate bill, however, would require the Nuclear Weapons Council to certify that the NNSA’s annual budget request each year is adequate to meet the needs of the Pentagon’s nuclear-weapon mission.

The council would have to provide that certification before the Secretary of Energy even transmitted the first draft of her or his budget request to the White House: something that happens months before the public, and notionally Congress, gets a look at the request.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the author of that language, and he wanted to go much further than that.

The version of the NDAA the committee sent to the floor, with the approval of almost every committee member, would have required the Secretary of Energy to adjust the NNSA’s budget request by whatever amount the Nuclear Weapons Council thought necessary. The full Senate stripped out that language in January, reigniting the 20-year-old debate about who should control the NNSA — a debate that may have cost ex-NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty her job.

Gordon-Hagerty enjoyed a good working relationship with Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense who chairs the Nuclear Weapons Council. The two agreed that the NNSA needed a bigger budget, and official correspondence between them, which leaked to the Hill last year while federal agencies were putting their 2021 budget requests together in private, helped convince the White House and the Senate to steer billions more than anticipated to the NNSA.

But for Klotz, Gordon-Hagerty’s predecessor, the Nuclear Weapons Council would still be better off if the DoE held more than one of the group’s six voting seats.

“If we’re going to have a Nuclear Weapons Council, we need to have a Nuclear Weapons Council that is balanced, in terms of responsibilities and in terms of representation and takes a look at the entire nuclear weapons enterprise, not just that that is being done by the NNSA,” Klotz said Wednesday.