With rumors flying over major proposed spending cuts to nonmilitary federal programs, top senators said yesterday they’ve had no input from the Trump administration on what level of funding the White House will propose for the Energy Department in the fiscal 2018 budget to be released next week.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the leaders of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, as well as Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), all said yesterday they haven’t heard from the White House about what’s in store for DOE in the budget, which will be released March 16.
"We’re waiting and waiting," Cantwell told reporters, noting past discussions with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was confirmed last week, over the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, the national laboratories, and the department’s research and development efforts. "It’s very clear what the priorities should be. I hope they follow them."
Murkowski, who also chairs the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said she hasn’t heard from the White House about possible cuts at U.S. EPA and the Interior Department, which reportedly face respective proposed budget cuts of 24 percent and 10 percent.
"All we have is the rumors that have been created by some of these organizations that are putting things down and they get leaked out," Murkowski said. "And I don’t have any solid information from the White House."
The White House Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment, but in a Monday appearance on "The Hugh Hewitt Show," OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said the delay in confirming President Trump’s Cabinet may force the administration to delay major reforms to federal agencies until fiscal 2019.
"I don’t even know if Rick Perry got confirmed yet or not, so how can I expect … plans on reforming the Department of Energy, plans to getting stuff back to the states, getting the government back to its core mission is sort of an administrationwide approach," he said.
"And when you’ve got some Cabinet agencies who are just starting work here for the first time, it’s sort of hard to come up with a plan," he said. "So you’re probably not going to see specifics on devolution in the 2018 budget, but 2019 budget, which actually starts in September of this year, I hope to get deep, deep down into those details."
‘At least level funding’
Stakeholders are already circling the wagons to shore up support for DOE’s efficiency programs.
The Alliance to Save Energy yesterday led a coalition letter to House and Senate appropriators calling for "at least level funding" for efficiency efforts at DOE.
"These programs return benefits and savings to American homeowners, consumers, and businesses many times more than the public’s investment. Furthermore, these programs, often through public-private partnerships, have helped develop an energy efficiency sector that accounts for 2.2 million jobs," the groups wrote.
Concerns that efficiency programs could be on the chopping block may be well-founded. As a GOP House member from South Carolina — where he was a leader of the House Freedom Caucus — Mulvaney co-sponsored several bills that targeted DOE efficiency efforts.
During the 114th Congress, Mulvaney supported a bill that would have imposed new requirements on DOE in setting efficiency standards for mobile homes under a 2007 law. He also signed onto a bill that would have required DOE and EPA "to rely on voluntary programs for certifying manufacturer compliance with energy conservation performance standards and Energy Star specifications for consumer products and industrial equipment."
In the last Congress, Mulvaney backed a bill that would have modified a DOE efficiency standard for water heaters.
In 2012, Mulvaney also offered an amendment to the House Energy and Water Development bill that would have cut $3.1 billion from the legislation, although his proposal would have shielded DOE nuclear energy, nuclear waste cleanup and nuclear weapons programs from the reductions.
Last year, Mulvaney sponsored his own bill allowing DOE to enter into contracts to temporarily store high-level nuclear waste at interim storage sites — an idea that Alexander and Feinstein have included for years in their Energy-Water bill, only to be rebuffed by the House.
Alexander yesterday said he was unaware of Mulvaney’s bill but said it "might" portend well for his and Feinstein’s perennial push to create a pilot program allowing DOE to get started on interim storage.
‘Big problems coming up’
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who serves as Murkowski’s counterpart on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds EPA and Interior, said yesterday that riders and Trump’s proposal to increase military spending by $54 billion by cutting an equal amount from domestic programs are the "big problems coming up" for appropriators.
The April 28 expiration of the continuing resolution that is funding the federal government will be the first test.
"If we get through this first period without riders and where both sides can accept it and we still have a good balance, I think that will suggest to me that’s more where we’re at than any budget that’s sent up here," Udall said.
Udall, a member of the Energy-Water subcommittee, said Perry "seemed like he understood" the importance of DOE’s national laboratories, which he said in some cases should be candidates for budget increases, given their work supporting the national security apparatus.
"I just think that a lot of important national security and intelligence work is being done at the labs, that a smart decisionmaker would say we could use some increases in those areas," Udall said.
Senate Republican appropriators said they have not been given any details about the budget but said the reports of proposed cuts are only the beginning of negotiations over fiscal 2018 spending.
"The president has his ideas on how he thinks things need to move forward, then Congress actually decides. It’ll be a good starting point," said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), an appropriator who noted past budget proposals from the Obama White House had little support in the chamber and were regularly rewritten.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior appropriator, said the budget is only a "recommendation" and Congress will set priories. "Let’s see how serious it is," he said when asked about deep cuts reported to hit agencies like EPA and Interior.
But Shelby, the chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said it would be wrong to target NASA for budget cuts. "I think we benefit from it immensely, and we have to pay for it," he said, adding that he has yet to meet with Mulvaney.
The White House has not offered any specifics on NASA spending, although Trump is supposedly interested in space exploration.
Usually an administration spends the weeks leading up to a budget rollout offering some details to lawmakers in private sessions to build support or head off any public squabbles, but that has yet to happen.
Trump did host one appropriator, Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for lunch yesterday.
Afterward, Graham said the president’s call for an increase in defense spending was "music to my ears." The senator did not, however, comment on reported cuts in foreign aid that Graham, who leads the spending panel on State Department funding, had previously panned.