Defense bill would give Pentagon power over Energy’s nuclear arms budget

Pentagon would weigh in on nuclear arms budget, an extraordinary new power

The provision that would give the Pentagon a say in the nuclear budget was prompted by an internal debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The provision that would give the Pentagon a say in the nuclear budget was prompted by an internal debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 30, 2020 at 9:04am

Tucked deep inside the Senate’s defense authorization bill is a provision that experts say would give nuclear weapons advocates extraordinary new power to influence the president’s budget every year.

A behind-the-scenes argument among senators over the proposal’s huge budgetary ramifications is now starting to trickle out onto the Senate floor as the chamber debates the $731.3 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, this week. A bipartisan group of senators is looking to excise or at least alter the Senate Armed Services Committee’s provision.

“This is a big change,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said on the floor Monday. “This is a total jam, neutering the Department of Energy on almost half its budget.”

[Nuclear energy allies back advanced reactors in NDAA]

The provision would give certain Pentagon officials authority to set the size and makeup of the annual National Nuclear Security Administration atomic arms budget before the Energy secretary sends it to the White House.

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Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette on Monday sent an impassioned letter on this issue to Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. In the letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call, Brouillette said the administration “strongly opposes” the bill’s changes to his budgetary authority.

“Together these provisions eliminate a President’s Cabinet Secretary from managing some of the most sensitive national security programs in the Department, most notably, assuring the viability of the Nation’s nuclear deterrent, yet leaving ultimate responsibility for NNSA’s actions with the Secretary,” Brouillette wrote. “This, in effect, leaves the Secretary with responsibility for the program, while removing his or her ability to effectively manage it.”

Brouillette said he strongly encourages the Senate to reject the provisions “so that I, along with all future Secretaries of Energy, may fulfill our obligations to Congress and to the American people to effectively manage DOE’s national security assets.”

Fallout from January battle

The Senate NDAA provision was prompted by an internal Trump administration debate earlier this year over the size of the NNSA’s nuclear weapons budget, according to aides, analysts and lobbyists.

Brouillette had initially written a proposal in January that, to atomic arms advocates, fell $2.1 billion short of what was required. CQ Roll Call disclosed in March that the additional money was needed mostly to cover previously undisclosed overruns in major warhead programs, not to add new capabilities or accelerate programs.

The money was ultimately added to the NNSA weapons budget. But it took letters in January from 41 hawkish lawmakers in both chambers and then, on Jan. 23, a personal visit to the White House by six of those members to convince President Donald Trump to request the higher amount of $20 billion.

Kingston Reif, a nuclear weapons expert at the Arms Control Association, said the new Senate Armed Services Committee provision appears to be an effort to ensure that NNSA nuclear weapons programs are more likely to be strongly supported in the future as the budget is constructed.

“These provisions would make it much harder for a future administration that might sensibly want to rein in the NNSA’s increasingly out-of-control budget to do so,” Reif said.

Nuclear Weapons Council

Three Senate Armed Services Committee members attended the White House confab with Trump in January. The most senior of those members was Inhofe.

Marta Hernandez, Inhofe’s spokeswoman, said the committee’s new provision “clarifies and strengthens the Department of Defense’s coordination, insight and participation in the NNSA budget development process, as well as improves transparency of the NNSA budget both for Congress and for the American people.”

It does not, she said, give the Pentagon veto power over the atomic arms agency’s weapons budget.

The Senate committee’s proposal, though, would mandate that the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council, a group of senior civilians and top officers involved in nuclear programs, approve the “funding levels and initiatives” in the annual NNSA budget before it goes to the White House.

The president would have final say on the budget that is sent to Congress, but, crucially, the Pentagon would have the last word on what is presented to the president.

“That is unprecedented in national security budgeting,” said Mark Cancian, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the requirement for Nuclear Weapons Council approval of the DOE budget. “It increases the influence of nuclear advocates,” said Cancian, who formerly oversaw nuclear weapons and other defense programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a June 26 letter to Inhofe obtained by CQ Roll Call that they are “alarmed” by how little they were consulted on the issue and want to see the provision struck from the bill while a new approach is devised.

The Nuclear Weapons Council at the Pentagon, they wrote, “has a narrower focus than the Secretary of Energy, and its recommendations would likely prioritize nuclear weapons at the expense of other critical missions undertaken by DOE, ranging from the cleanup of legacy defense waste sites to the cybersecurity of our electric grid and funding for energy innovation.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer supports the Murkowski-Manchin effort to alter the defense authorization bill, an aide to Schumer confirmed.

Murkowski said on the floor Monday evening that the Senate provision would prioritize the NNSA’s budget over the rest of the Energy Department budget.

“We have significant, significant concerns about this,” Murkowski said.

Ana Gamonal de Navarro, a spokeswoman for NNSA, said the agency also opposes the pending Senate proposal.

“Granting the Department of Defense authority over the Department of Energy’s annual budget undermines DOE’s position as a separate and equal Cabinet-level agency,” she said.

The House Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, plans to mark up its fiscal 2021 defense authorization measure on July 1.

Under Democratic leadership, the House panel has been more austere with the nuclear weapons budget and is likely to view the Senate provision skeptically.

The House bill has a provision that would require the NNSA and Pentagon to coordinate as early as possible as they build each fiscal year’s budget. But the House bill does not mirror the Senate plan to give the Pentagon power to shape the budget before it is submitted to the White House.

A Defense Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the debate.

Fight over funds, firepower

The Senate bill would significantly aggrandize the power of the Nuclear Weapons Council, which is headed by the Pentagon’s acquisition undersecretary and includes the Defense undersecretaries for policy and research as well as the NNSA administrator, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

Under Inhofe’s proposal, the council would report to the Energy secretary on each year’s draft NNSA budget proposal. At that point in the process, if the council found the budget was “inadequate,” then “the Secretary of Energy would be required to include those funding levels and specific initiatives in the proposed budget submitted to the OMB,” the Senate panel’s report said.

To Inhofe, the change is a way of ensuring the Pentagon coordinates with an agency that, in his view, serves the U.S. military, since the warheads made by NNSA must be attached to the military’s missiles and bombs.

But critics say the proposal is misguided.

Leland Cogliani, a former Senate Appropriations Committee Democratic staffer whose portfolio included the NNSA budget, said the change would stack the deck in favor of officials who run nuclear arms programs.

“It’s almost presenting a unified military front and challenging OMB, the Energy secretary, the president and ultimately Congress to deviate from what the supposed military experts have deemed necessary,” said Cogliani, now a lobbyist at the Lewis-Burke government affairs firm, whose clients include NNSA-funded programs that he said are not top priorities for the Pentagon.