Energy Secretary Chu sends protest letter to OMB
A President bent on pushing deficit reduction buttons anywhere he can find them has hit a few at the Department of Energy. Earlier this week the Office of Management & Budget tried to cut the Environmental Cleanup program by a considerable amount, but was forced to back off as a result of bipartisan pressure from Congress.
The next candidate for budget slashing at DOE has turned out to be the nuclear energy R&D budget. There is a much narrower constituency for this federal spending in Congress. For instance, Idaho and Tennessee have too many members of Congress on the wrong side of the partisan divide. This political fact of life makes these line items more vulnerable to cuts when appropriations bills come up for committee votes.
According to the Energy Daily for Jan 15, a trusted and credible nuclear industry trade newsletter, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has taken the unusual step of making public a letter of protest he sent to OMB Director Peter Orszag. In it Chu laid out a litany of complaints about budget cuts for a wide swath of nuclear energy R&D spending in FY 2011.
OMB’s direction includes cuts to work on a broad range of large and small nuclear technologies for both light water and fast reactor designs. It also includes a shift to industry in terms of cost sharing. The Energy Daily didn't provide a line-by-line breakdown. However, the newsletter's description of Chu's letter indicates OMB's cuts hit a significant number of programs.
The reason Chu’s action leaking the letter to the Energy Daily is unusual is that the “passback,” or budget OMB tells federal agencies to request from Congress is not a public process. Even more unusual is that the letter came into the hands of the Energy Daily. When a cabinet secretary leaks a letter like this you can bet he is really upset by the hatchet job done to his programs by the budget boys in OMB. In the end, Chu can only submit a budget to Congress that is signed off by OMB.
Mid-term elections drive deficit reduction
President Obama is making a push for deficit reduction going into the 2010 mid-term elections. Congress will be considering the major appropriations bills in the two months prior to the November elections.
The President’s political objective is to stem losses in the House and Senate, which are inevitable at mid-term. The primary tool he has is to outdistance the Republicans with deficit reduction actions.
You can bet your neutron detectors every member of Congress will be working the wring headlines from the process showing how hard they are working to cut the deficit. You can also assume that they will working with equal vigor to protect home state funding.
OMB’s tactic is to cut everything in sight assuming that the tried-and-true scenario described above will once again play itself out. The political practice is to toss the budget tar baby to Congress and let the full House and one-third of the Senate up for election duke it out in the appropriation process. In short, OMB is putting the budget monkey on Congress.
President’s budget does not survive first contact with Congress
The good news for advocates of nuclear energy R&D is that the short-list of items being cut by OMB, and which will appear in the President’s budget sent to Congress by the end of January, is likely to be dead in the water on arrival when it hits Capitol Hill.
The bad news for advocates of any line item, including nuclear energy R&D, is that the competition for funding in 20111 is going to be particularly acute. The nation is facing record deficits and a struggling economy which means lower tax revenues. Something has to give.
Federal entitlement spending, like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, make up a huge portion of the federal budget. These accounts are difficult to control. Like squeezing air in a partially inflated balloon, the pressure moves to discretionary programs. That’s why nuclear R&D gets OMB’s attention. It isn’t because OMB is anti-nuclear. It is because the budget is in the discretionary area of government operations. It is there and it can be cut without impeding critical government spending.
When you get to brass tacks, nuclear energy R&D is far down the food chain when it comes to government budget necessities.
The military will not want for ammunition, rations, or transport. The FAA will continue to be able to provide air traffic control for the nation’s aviation industry. The Centers for Disease Control will fight infectious disease regardless of what happens with nuclear R&D.
Of course, you can say nuclear energy is needed to halt the growth of greenhouse gases, but the response from the White House likely would be a political line about renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, and support for the current fleet of 104 operating reactors. Also, the White House would point to the eventual award of $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for fewer than half a dozen new nuclear reactors.
The squeeze play is on. The deficit and the economy are creating conditions affecting the federal budget that have huge implications across all federal spending accounts. Nuclear technologists should not feel singled out. The politically realistic strategy should be to find allies and build as broad a constituency in Congress to save what you can. It is going to be a very rough time for all of the government appropriation bills. If the economy continues to emerge slowly from one of the worst recessions since the 1930s, future budget cycles could bring continued uncertainty over funding for nuclear R&D.
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Hat tip to Lane Allgood at Partnership for Science and Technology (PST) for sharing information on Chu’s protests over OMB budget cuts.
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