Standoff Looms Between House and Senate over DOE R&D Funding

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Publication date: 
28 June 2017

House appropriators have released a draft bill that proposes flat funding for the Department of Energy Office of Science, a major cut to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the defunding of ARPA–E. However, key senators are signaling their resistance to cuts at DOE, portending a possible standoff between the chambers.

Yesterday, the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee released its draft bill to set fiscal year 2018 funding levels for the Department of Energy. The legislation represents Congress’ first concrete response to the Trump administration’s budget request for the department. The subcommittee approved the bill today and it will now move to the full Appropriations Committee for consideration.

The Senate, meanwhile, has not yet released draft appropriations legislation for any of the federal government’s science agencies. However, at a hearing last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed strong opposition to cutting DOE’s R&D programs.

The differences between the House and Senate proposals that emerge over the coming weeks will have to be reconciled before appropriations are finalized. As of now, it appears that applied R&D funding at DOE could become a major point of contention.

DOE Science flat in House proposal, renewables office halved

Overall, the House seems to have honored the Trump administration’s desire to deprioritize nondefense applied research while pushing back against the scale of its proposed cuts. Where the administration proposed a 17 percent cut to DOE’s Office of Science, the House bill would keep its funding even at $5.4 billion. Where the administration proposed cuts to DOE’s fossil energy, nuclear energy, and electricity delivery and energy reliability offices ranging between 31 and 58 percent, the House bill would impose 5 percent decreases.

However, the bill did largely accede to the administration’s proposed 70 percent cut to the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), only softening it to a 47 percent — or nearly $1 billion — reduction. A committee statement accompanying the release notes that DOE’s renewable energy programs “have already received significant investments in recent years.”

In addition, the bill allocates no funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, in accord with the administration’s proposal to close the $300 million agency down. The bill meets the president’s request to increase the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget almost 8 percent to $13.9 billion.

At its subcommittee hearing on the DOE budget last week, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) remarked that the U.S. “has correctly invested heavily in scientific research.” He said that he appreciates that DOE had “a lot of difficult decisions to make” in putting its budget together, but also mentioned concerns he has about the administration’s proposed cuts to nuclear energy and fusion energy programs and pointed specifically to the work of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in his home state.

Sen. Alexander expresses strong opposition to R&D cuts

At the Senate hearing on the DOE budget, Alexander made clear his desire to generously fund the department, pointing out that his subcommittee proposed record funding levels for DOE research programs in fiscal year 2017. Arguing that discretionary spending is “under control,” he also repeated the position he took just after the president’s budget was released:

The federal budget can’t be balanced on the backs of the national labs, national parks, National Institutes of Health, and national defense.

Laying out the funding available to his subcommittee, Alexander said Senate leaders had told him to move ahead with the same topline number as for fiscal year 2017. He noted that the allocation for nondefense spending would be about 2 percent lower but that additional funds could be released to the subcommittee later. He said he hopes the allocation will be sufficient to permit bipartisan agreement to coalesce around the subcommittee’s spending proposals.


Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asks Energy Secretary Rick Perry about the Trump administration’s proposal to close down the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) asks Energy Secretary Rick Perry about the Trump administration’s proposal to close down the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy.

(Image credit – Senate Appropriations Committee)

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Alexander also took a hard position against the closure of ARPA–E, saying flatly, “That’s not what we’re going to do.” He remarked that he and other senators regard the agency as a “big success,” and that he thinks opposition to it might derive from perceptions that the agency’s work is linked to climate policy. He argued, though, that ARPA–E’s mission has a much broader significance, asserting,

Clean energy is at the center of the research effort that we ought to be doing in the United States and ARPA–E may be the very best way we have to do it.

Democrats criticize short and long-term consequences of cuts

Democrats on both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees staked out their objection to the Trump administration’s budget in no uncertain terms. They peppered Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was testifying in defense of the budget, with questions about both the short-term and long-term consequences of its cuts.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), the ranking member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, pointed to an estimate that about 7,000 “highly skilled technical experts” could be laid off at national laboratories, which she said translates into 14,000 to 21,000 lost jobs in the communities surrounding the labs. She also said she worried that cutting “later-stage research” would “result in a cornucopia of good ideas residing in labs in a form still insufficiently mature for private industry to take over.” She quoted from a letter signed by all the heads of EERE from 1989 to 2017 objecting to the Trump administration’s proposals for cuts to that office specifically.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on Alexander’s subcommittee, cited a similar job loss figure, elaborating that it included 41 percent of the lab employees at Ames Laboratory, 33 percent at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 29 percent at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 27 percent at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and 16 percent at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. She added,

To make matters worse, the budget also drastically cuts operational run time at all major research machines at the national labs. These include the light sources at Argonne, Berkeley, Brookhaven, and SLAC; neutron sources at Oak Ridge; nanoscale source centers at five national labs; and accelerators at five national labs.

She argued that the Trump administration’s budget does not accord with Perry’s oft-expressed appreciation for the importance of DOE’s R&D programs, telling him, “That’s a big problem and we need to square it off.”

Perry evasive on cuts, says there is room to negotiate

In his testimony before the Appropriations subcommittees, as well as at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Perry freely admitted that the administration’s proposals will not be the final word on DOE’s budget. He said he looks forward to working with Congress to arrive at a final appropriation.

Perry also asked appropriators to write legislation that would provide him with “flexibility” to manage the department’s priorities. Throughout the hearings, he used the presumption of such flexibility to avoid addressing the consequences of specific cuts proposed in the Trump budget. In one exchange with Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), he remarked,

Just because there is a line item [that] had a particular name on it and a particular direction, that [means] we are somehow going to back away from that effort? We’re not.

Asked by Rep. Dan Newhouse (D-WA) about a forecast of 1,000 jobs to be lost at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory under the Trump budget, Perry said the estimate “doesn’t take into account our being able to manage, our being able to use year-end expended balances.” When Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) brought up this remark at the Senate Energy Committee hearing, he would not rule out job cuts.

Similarly, when Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she is a “big fan” of ARPA–E and asked about its proposed elimination, Perry neither disowned nor advocated the move, saying only that“it’s worth having a conversation … a good open discussion” about whether DOE currently has a “proper structure” in place to achieve the department’s goals.

With Perry apparently uncommitted to particular spending priorities, the billion-dollar question now is what spending proposals appropriators can agree on and how they will resolve their differences.

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