‘Mindless austerity’ comment sets off Republican ire amid budget review

By Katherine Ling, Nick Juliano | 03/18/2015 07:39 AM EDT

Statements by senior Energy Department officials sparked Republican outrage at a budget hearing yesterday before even a dime of President Obama’s fiscal 2016 proposal had been discussed.

Statements by senior Energy Department officials sparked Republican outrage at a budget hearing yesterday before even a dime of President Obama’s fiscal 2016 proposal had been discussed.

In their written opening statements, the heads of DOE’s science programs called the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration "mindless austerity and manufactured crises," and said their end brought positive benefits for the economy. That provoked fury from at least one member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

"I can’t believe we have such an inherently political statement put into the record," Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said. He added that in his more than 20 years on the subcommittee, which had been known for working on a bipartisan basis, he had never heard such an "unfortunate" statement to the panel.


Franklin Orr, DOE’s undersecretary of science, said the comment was made in an attempt to outline the agency’s budget issues and to argue that science and engineering investments are in the national interest.

"We think sequestration is not in the national interest because it reduces critical investment going forward," Orr said after the hearing.

President Obama used the phrase "mindless austerity" in his speech unveiling his fiscal 2016 request last month, and it has been used by other members of the administration since. It is used three times on the budget home page of the White House Office of Management and Budget website.

The word choice may not win much support on the GOP side as Obama pushes for again stopping sequestration in his fiscal 2016 spending proposal. The request includes a $10.7 billion budget for energy and science programs out of a total DOE $30 billion discretionary request, a 5 percent increase from fiscal 2015 funding.

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) asked the DOE officials how he is supposed to defend an international collaboration on fusion energy, known as ITER, that some lawmakers want to see cut — as well as explain generally the importance of government-funded science to the public.

"I just like to answer the questions I see all the time," Simpson said. "There are going to be efforts to defund [ITER], I am pretty sure, in this funding cycle."

Last year, his argument against such cuts was that Congress needed to give ITER time to implement some suggested reforms after a scathing report released a year ago outlined significant management issues on top of repeated project delays.

"Is that going to be my same argument again this year?" he asked.

Orr said the time argument is the correct one. The changes to get the projects on track have started, he added, including the appointment of a "very capable and respected new leader" in Bernard Bigot, who was confirmed by the ITER council earlier this month.

The White House did recommend a cut of about $48 million down to $420 million in fiscal 2016 for the overall Fusion Energy Sciences programs.

Addressing the argument that the private sector would step in and do fundamental energy research if the government weren’t supporting it, Patricia Dehmer, acting director of the Office of Science, said the importance of the federal government’s broad research portfolio has to do with "timing."

"Industry just simply doesn’t invest in things that long," Dehmer said.

Plus, a private entity would never fund the steep sticker price of high-energy or nuclear physics, for example, she added.

Applied energy

A specific Obama administration phrase likewise sparked debate at the subcommittee’s hearing earlier yesterday on the budget proposals for the applied energy programs at DOE, which include energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear, the electric grid and fossil.

The panel raised the question: What does the president’s "all of the above" energy strategy really mean?

The catchphrase is popular on all sides of the political spectrum and among proponents of most energy sources, but it tends to carry a different connotation depending on who is delivering it at any particular point.

As has been the case for years, members of the Obama administration and House Republicans disagree over which sources deserve the emphasis in an all-of-the-above portfolio. The administration prioritizes technologies like wind, solar and efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while Republicans say the reliability and abundance of fossil fuels and nuclear power should give those sources a more prominent role in energy policymaking.

"A true all-of-the-above approach would not make these sources the lowest priority of the Department of Energy," Simpson said of the agency’s nuclear and fossil fuel offices, which do not fare nearly as well in the president’s request as the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

Orr acknowledged the dramatic effect newly unlocked supplies of oil and natural gas have had on the energy landscape and the broader economy, but said the administration’s goal was to make sure those and other resources are used "safely, cleanly, reliably [and] economically," while maintaining a diverse supply portfolio.

Regarding fossil fuels used for power generation, Orr said the administration has "made a commitment to coal and natural gas in concert with" efforts to deploy carbon capture technology to control their greenhouse gas emissions.

Senior officials from DOE’s various energy offices delivered overviews of their efforts and attempted to assuage the concerns raised by Simpson and other Republicans.

For example, Assistant Secretary Christopher Smith, who runs the Office of Fossil Energy, touted DOE’s ongoing work focused on making natural gas extraction more environmentally friendly, among other initiatives.

John Kotek, deputy principal assistant secretary in the nuclear office, said that DOE’s multi-pronged approach to nuclear research and development includes work aimed at extending the life spans of existing reactors, developing pathways for new systems such as small modular reactors, and exploring alternative fuel cycle and disposal technologies.

Overall, he said, the agency is trying to "draw on the best ideas across the nuclear industry and beyond" in an effort to put the industry on the right path for the future.

Kotek was filling in for Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons, who is recovering from surgery, a DOE spokeswoman said. Kotek has been rumored to be in line to replace Lyons (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

Simpson said he plans to meet next week with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, to discuss how they plan to approach this year’s spending bills.

In general, he expects Republicans will give less to EERE than the president has requested and more to the fossil and nuclear accounts, although he said many details have to be worked out and suggested it will be a struggle for his subcommittee to hit lower spending targets than it did last year.

"It’ll be hard to put the budget together," Simpson said, "but we’ll do it."