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WITH UNCERTAINTY IN CONGRESS ON CMRR, PROJECT FACES MURKY FUTURE
Appropriators and Authorizers Take Different Views on Multi-Billion-Dollar Project, So Who Wins?
The Obama Administration’s decision to defer work on Los Alamos’ Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement- Nuclear Facility has divided Congress, pitting Republicans against Democrats and appropriators against authorizers—a debate which some Congressional staff and industry officials say may leave uncertainties about the fate of the project at the start of the fiscal year. But in spite of the divergent views on the controversial project, the National Nuclear Security Administration isn’t planning to change course any time soon. In an interview with NW&M Monitor, NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller said the agency was still on track to wrap up work on the multi-billion-dollar project by the end of September as it follows the lead of House and Senate appropriators, both of which this spring supported the Administration’s decision to delay the project for at least five years. “No one gave us any money to do anything differently,” Miller told NW&M Monitor.
Authorizers, though, in the House and Senate believe they did chart a different path, and competing provisions in Fiscal Year 2013 legislation regarding the multi-billiondollar facility sets up a battle between the two arms of the legislative branch that control the future of the NNSA. In contrast to appropriators, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees authorized varying levels of funds for the project in FY2013 to keep the project moving. “If push comes to shove, this is prescriptive in statute and it says ‘of the funds authorized to be appropriated for NNSA,’ “ one Congressional aide said, referring to provisions in the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act. “So they would have to obey the law.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone agrees, as has become common in the case of CMRR-NF, which has become a poster child for debate over the Obama Administration’s plans to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons complex and arsenal. “The fact that there is chaos now suggests there is a pretty reasonable expectation that at the end of the year we’re still going to be awfully confused on this matter,” one industry official told NW&M Monitor.
A Debate Over Priorities
The debate began almost immediately after the Administration announced in February that tightening federal budgets were forcing it to defer work on the facility for at least five years. At an estimated cost between $3.7 and $5.8 billion, the Administration said the facility was too expensive to afford—and it had other options. The Administration directed Los Alamos to wrap up the project by the end of FY2012 to save progress on the project and study the Administration’s alternative plan: using existing facilities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Nevada National Security Site, and at Los Alamos to meet the nation’s plutonium needs. Republicans immediately seized on the decision as an example of the Administration reneging on promises made during debate on the New START Treaty to pour $88 billion into the weapons complex over the next decade, but conscious of budgetary pressures, appropriators in the GOP-led House and Democrat- led Senate went along with the decision, redirecting money that had been expected to go to the project for work on the alternative plan.
The NNSA, in the meantime, defended the decision to defer the project as a reflection of economic pressure rather than a statement against the project. “We always said we need CMRR. We still need CMRR,” Miller said. “We believe given the budget situation the appropriate course right now is to maintain the capability we need, make sure we have the capability we need, and do it in a way that allows us to fund the other stuff we need. If somebody can figure out how to fund things with all of it with less than we said we needed I am looking forward to hearing it.”
Authorizers Offer Competing Approaches
While rule of thumb on Capitol Hill typically gives the edge on funding issues to the lawmakers that actually sign the checks—the appropriators—Congressional aides have suggested that the authorizers also could have a say on the project this time around. Confusing the matter even further, however, is the fact that the two authorizing committees with jurisdiction over the NNSA took different approaches to reviving the project. The Senate Armed Services Committee matched the appropriators’ $7.6 billion funding level for the NNSA’s weapons program, but authorized the agency to spend $150 million on the project in FY2013, ordering the agency in bill language to dip into other accounts to come up with the money. The committee also placed a $3.7 billion cap on the project.
In contrast, the House-cleared version of the FY2013 Defense Authorization Act authorizes $7.9 billion for the NNSA’s weapons program, including an extra $100 million for CMRR-NF and gives the agency the authority to use another $160 million in unspent balances for the project. It also would move the project out of the NNSA and under the control of the Pentagon starting in FY2014, which would also shift the project to the Military Construction/ Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. Underpinning the decisions by both authorizing committees is a concern that the current alternative won’t allow the NNSA to meet Defense Department requirements to have the capability to produce 50 to 80 pits a year. “Both HASC and SASC have, on a bipartisan basis, voted to reverse President Obama’s proposal to renege on his promise to build CMRR,” one Congressional aide said. “CMRR is a means to an end. CMRR and other key modernization projects are the implementation of a bipartisan policy to build a ‘responsive infrastructure’—which, let’s not forget, is the President’s own policy as described in his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.” The staffer said the policy decision is “lost in the weeds” of the CMRR-NF debate. “This is really about the plutonium-related capacity and capability we need.”
So, Who Wins?
Budget experts suggest that the authorizers’ position is quite tenuous. Richard Kogan, an expert with the nonpartisan Center on Budgeting and Policy Priorities, said the way House and Senate rules are set up tilts the scales vastly in favor of appropriators. “In general the appropriators win,” Kogan said. “And also in general whoever does the final bill wins, and that’s almost always the appropriators because they’re almost always wrapping up things in an omnibus appropriations bill before Congress adjourns.” Kogan suggested that authorizers could succeed by inserting language—as the Senate Armed Services Committee has done—that in effect “re-decides on the use of that money within the appropriations account” after the appropriation has been enacted. But he said such an approach could run afoul of House and Senate rules if it was deemed to be an attempt to appropriate money in an authorization bill. “So there are lots of reasons to think that the appropriators win,” he said.
Bill Hoagland, who was the top budget aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and served on the staff of the Senate Budget Committee under Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) from 1982 to 2003, suggested an attempt to reprogram funds to circumvent appropriations could run into its own hurdles. “The actual request for reprogramming does come back to the appropriators,” Hoagland said. “It would all depend on where you’re reprogramming from, and whose ox is going to get gored. It could work but you’re not taking the appropriators out of the process completely.” Some Congressional aides have suggested that because it is in bill language, if it is enacted, approval from appropriators would not be needed. Appropriators could get around the language, however, by inserting language into their version of the bill barring funds from being spent on the project on an annual basis. That language isn’t currently in either of the bills, but it could be added during conference negotiations. “That’s their trump card,” Hoagland said.
Reprogramming, But at What Cost?
One weapons complex observer suggested that the approach favored by Senate authorizers to force NNSA to reprogram money for the project had additional pitfalls. “That means you end up sacrificing a third or a quarter of the lab population to build these things? They’re not going to be allowed to do that during an election year. You can’t take it out of hide. There isn’t the hide there. You can’t create money.” Such an approach would put the NNSA in a problematic position, the official said. “Which part of the weapons program would you like to break? Each one of them is pretty close to breaking. This budget pressed on every single piece of it,” the official said. “They’ve taken margin out of everywhere because they’re in bad shape.”
For the NNSA, at least thus far, the direction is clear. “There is no project,” Miller said. “The President’s budget didn’t propose the project for the next five year and the appropriators, who are the ones that actually have the money, have not told us, ‘By the way we put that money in for you to do CMRR.’ If we had seen any signal like that, I’m sure we would have to be sitting down and thinking how do we handle this.” —Todd Jacobson