Congress moves to give Pentagon more say in Energy Department’s nukes budget

Provision in defense bill could lead to pressure to boost spending on atomic weapons

Aerial view of the Pentagon building.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 7, 2020 at 10:29am

Congress is poised to give the Pentagon a new mechanism for influencing the Energy Department’s spending on nuclear warheads and bombs.

Critics and proponents alike think the proposed process, set forth in the defense authorization conference report, could lead to pressure to spend more and more on atomic weapons. And the pending legislation does not sit well with some members of both parties who fear it could exert downward pressure on nonmilitary priorities at the Energy Department.

The final version of the NDAA would empower the Nuclear Weapons Council, a group comprised primarily of senior Pentagon civilians and top military officers, to certify in writing to the White House and Congress whether the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons budget is “adequate” each year — even before it is sent to Capitol Hill.

Congress is likely to vote in the coming days to clear the legislation for President Donald Trump’s signature. He has threatened to veto it over other issues. But precedent favors the bill’s eventual enactment: It has happened for 59 straight fiscal years.

Long-running debate

The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, oversees spending on nuclear weapons and related research — a proposed $19.7 billion in fiscal 2021, more than half the Energy Department’s overall budget.

Separately, the Pentagon is in charge of the missiles, aircraft and submarines that would deliver the weapons.

The debate over the Defense Department's say over the NNSA budget has a long history. It has recurred periodically ever since Congress decided in 1946, with the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, to put the budget for atomic weapons outside the department that oversees the military.

Earlier this year, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette submitted to the White House a fiscal 2021 budget request for his department that, in the view of defense hawks, shortchanged atomic arms by $2.1 billion.

The additional money was needed, CQ Roll Call disclosed later, mostly just to cover cost overruns and delays, rather than advance initiatives.

Regardless, the White House found itself under considerable pressure to up the request by bankrolling the additional nuclear spending. In January, Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and other conservatives weighed in personally with Trump.

Subsequently, the White House upped the NNSA request by $2.1 billion to $19.7 billion, a 25 percent increase over fiscal 2020.

When Inhofe’s committee produced its defense authorization bill in June, he looked to ensure that, going forward, the military’s concerns would be more carefully weighed — and, he hoped, heeded — earlier in the budget formulation process.

The Senate panel's version of the bill spelled out a new mechanism for the Pentagon to approve the NNSA budget.

But the Energy Department — and senior senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — raised a ruckus over the provision, and it was softened by a floor amendment.

Nonetheless, some of those senators who had opposed the committee’s measure are still not happy with the conference report.

One of those senators is Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Energy and Natural Resources chairwoman.

“Murkowski did not support these provisions and would strongly prefer they not be part of the final bill,” said Grace Jang, a Murkowski spokeswoman.
Reports to Congress

The conference report essentially retains the provision as modified on the Senate floor. While the language does not lay out a process for the Pentagon to determine the size and scope of the NNSA budget, it would nonetheless give Defense leaders new sway over that spending plan, critics said.

Under the conferees’ proposal, the Energy secretary would need to share the budget plan with the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council before the proposal goes to the White House.

The council would then need to tell the secretary whether the plan is sufficient. The secretary would need to include the council’s views in the department's budget submission to the White House. And the secretary would also need to tell Congress about the council’s take at that point in the process.

Then again, after the White House has received the secretary’s budget plan, the council would need to report to Congress on its adequacy.

All of this would happen before the official budget submission is sent to Capitol Hill.
Question of pressure

Kingston Reif, a nuclear weapons expert with the Arms Control Association, said the new process would generate pressure on the Energy secretary to increase spending on nuclear arms, potentially to the detriment of other DOE priorities, such as nuclear waste cleanup or nonproliferation activities.

“This is an unnecessary and excessive expansion of the Nuclear Weapon’s Council’s budget authority that will put pressure on the Energy Secretary to request the Council's preferred budget and will put other Energy Department national security programs at greater risk,” Reif said in an email. “Inhofe's goal was to make it harder for the Energy Secretary and OMB to seek to rein in the NNSA's increasingly out of control budget. And he has succeeded.”

Inhofe’s committee, for its part, said the new legislation would “better align” the Defense and Energy departments’ budget processes and clarify roles and duties.

It would enable the Pentagon to better “determine whether the NNSA budget request meets our military’s requirements, while improving transparency to Congress,” according to a committee summary of the conference report.

The final defense authorization measure would authorize almost all of the $19.7 billion request, though appropriators have yet to say how much of it will be provided. The money debate is part of the overall appropriations omnibus package that lawmakers are still writing. The government is operating on funding authority in a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 11.