Here We Go Again: Impasse over Weapons Lab Management
Only two weeks after the inception of the semi-autonomous NNSA, the administration has put itself on a collision course with Congress. When signing the defense authorization bill into law, containing the NNSA provisions, Clinton designated that the undersecretary's duties would be assumed by Richardson. Richardson could also, Clinton announced, "dual hat" existing DOE employees to fill the NNSA's positions. This arrangement would exist until further notice. This move came as a complete surprise, since the NNSA was established as a semi-autonomous agency within DOE.
Yesterday's three-hour hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Government Affairs Committee was well- attended by senators, press and the public. Richardson was the sole witness. In contrast to previous hearings that were marked by angry words, the tones were more subdued yesterday. Perhaps it was because everyone was weary. Nevertheless, if the senators' voices were softer, their sentiments were not.
"Frankly, I find that astonishing" said Energy Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) in describing the Clinton Administration's desire to change the law before implementing it as Congress had intended. Government Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) was blunter in his assessment, telling Richardson that the position of Clinton and Richardson "are not relevant." Thompson pointed out that Clinton could have vetoed the law if he did not approve of it. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Richardson that "the Administration, quite frankly, lost the argument" about the management of the weapons labs, saying "this is the height of arrogance."
Domenici told Richardson that it was not his or Clinton's prerogative to decide if the law should be fully implemented. Domenici observed that he had never seen anything like this in his 26 years in Congress, and proceeded to read to Richardson the oath of office which he took when becoming Energy Secretary. In perhaps the most important prediction made at the hearing, Domenici warned Richardson that as a result of this action, Congress might decide to remove the weapons activity from within DOE, setting it up as an independent agency like NASA.
New Mexico's other senator, Jeff Bingaman (D) described what he called "murky" language in the bill, and said, "we need to step back and take a deep breath." He cautioned everyone that they were "very close to inflicting long-term damage" on the weapons activity. Morale is dropping at the labs, he said, describing Sandia's lab recent attrition rate, particularly among younger researchers. He called for more work on the law, noting that it had only been two weeks since it had been signed into law. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) also urged caution, although he did say to Richardson, "the law is the law."
Richardson, in his statement to the committees, said he was not calling for a rewrite of the law, but rather "very modest modifications to put things right." He called for recognition of the changes he has implemented, saying "we all want accountability." "I will follow this law... we are obeying the law," Richardson exclaimed. The administration is on "sound constitutional grounds," he told the senators. Richardson said he was "pleading" with the senators to reexamine the law, saying he was "not trying to frustrate the will of the Congress," and not trying "to do an end run."
Murkowski put the major question to Richardson directly: will he nominate an undersecretary if the changes the administration seeks are not made by March 1, one of the key implementation dates in the law? Richardson said then, and at other times during the hearing, that that would be the decision of the president. Murkowski just shook his head.
Murkowski also asked Richardson for the bill language to revise the law. Richardson did not have it. He pledged to Murkowski that the committees would have it by the end of today. A major uncertainty is whether those changes will contain anything that Congress would accept -- this ground has been plowed many times during the last few months.
After another round of questions with Thompson, who was not buying the administration's desire for changes to the law, Richardson said "look, we intend to obey the law . . . we want it to work . . . we're going to name somebody." Thompson replied that the administration was going to have to correct the current situation before he would consider any revisions to the law.
Domenici had another turn, telling Richardson that there is a "very good chance we will not" change the law, a point later repeated by Murkowski. He wanted to know if the administration would implement the law if it was not changed, and then he made his observation about how all of this had "poisoned the well." "I think a reasonable approach would be to try it," Domenici said, speaking of the new law.
Richardson replied that "we reject the view that we are not following the law." He spoke of how the law's language could "blur" the lines of responsibility between civilian research and weapons research performed by the national laboratories. He also noted that Congress did not approve the $35 million the department had requested for strengthening computer security.
It is difficult to predict how this will end. Sentiments favoring the administration's action were few and far between at yesterday's hearing. And as exasperated as the senators were, Richardson was talking to senators who are largely supportive of the national labs. The House of Representatives is far less friendly. Murkowski may have said it best when he told Richardson that this was a "pretty high risk position to take."
Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics