WASHINGTON: A provision in the SASC’s 2021 defense policy bill that could have caused great friction between two powerful committees has been quashed. The provision would have handed DoD budgetary control of nuclear weapons development in the wake of strong opposition — including from Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
One of the longest-standing policy decisions governing nuclear weapons — not their delivery systems –is that funding and work would be controlled by civilians, in this case the Department of Energy. The SASC can only engage in oversight of “national security aspects of nuclear energy.”
Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski and Ranking Member Joe Manchin threatened to block the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on the Senate floor if the provision was not removed, according to one opponent.
The language in Section 3111 of the SASC bill would have given the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council power to set the annual budget of the development of warheads by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which develops and builds nuclear warheads for the Pentagon’s ICBMs, bombers and submarines.
The provision was overturned, as first reported by colleague John Donnelly, via an amendment cosponsored by Manchin and Sen. Maria Cantwell that the Senate approved on July 2, along with a larger package of changes. The amendment was approved unanimously, according to a July 2 press release by Cantwell.
Cantwell had been vociferous in her opposition to the bill, arguing that it not only would have usurped Brouillette’s power over his own department’s budget, but also could have resulted in the shifting of funds from other important DoE missions such as nuclear waste cleanup. (Brouillette made similar objections in a letter he sent to the SASC on June 29, further arguing that it would overturn civilian control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.)
“We’re so glad that we were able to stop efforts to usurp civilian control of nuclear weapons spending and protect the Department of Energy’s funding for critical nuclear waste cleanup programs,” Cantwell said in her press statement.
While leaving budgetary control to DoE, the Cantwell-Manchin amendment does give DoD an opportunity to make its views on the annual NNSA budget proposal known. According to Cantwell’s release, the provision will “promote transparency by attaching the NWC’s recommendation for the NNSA’s budget as an appendix to the final budget request submitted by the Secretary of Energy.”
Marta Hernandez, spokesperson for Inhofe, agreed that the change would promote the transparency into DoD’s requirements that SASC was hoping to achieve.
“The compromise still achieves Chairman Inhofe’s goal of giving the Department of Defense more direct involvement in the development of the NNSA budget, but the final approval power still rests with the Secretary of Energy. The NDAA maintains the increased transparency to Congress contained in the original provision,” she told Breaking D in an email today.