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"Forget the Rest" blog

  NWMM June 29, 2012

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


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