Knoxville News Sentinel: Sen. Alexander on Trump's DOE cuts: National labs country's 'secret weapon'
Posted on June 23, 2017
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, called the Department of Energy's 17 national laboratories the "nation's secret weapon," at a hearing Wednesday on proposed cuts to the Energy Department's budget.
President Donald Trump requested a $1.6 billion cut to the department in his proposed 2018 budget. The proposed cut would take about $900 million from the Office of Science, which stewards 10 national laboratories, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The President's budget request also reduces the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by $1.45 billion, the Office of Electricity by $110 million and the Office of Nuclear Energy by $310 million. It would also also terminate Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programs.
Perry defends budget
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who visited ORNL in May, defended the President's budget at the hearing, emphasizing the areas in the proposal that would receive more funding, like maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile and returning funding to the construction of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada.
"The President’s proposal focuses our priorities and reigns in spending," Perry said in his testimony. There is much the Department does well and stays within budget, and unfortunately there are places we need to be better stewards of our financial resources. This budget proposal makes some difficult choices."
Perry also spoke on the budget-requested $508 million allocation toward supercomputing, aimed at delivering the first exascale machine by 2021.
ORNL's Titan supercomputer, the fourth-fastest in the world as of June, can make 27,000 trillion calculations per second, measured as 27 petaflops. An exascale computer would be capable of making one billion billion calculations per second, or one exaflop.
Falling behind China
“The United States faces a choice between falling further behind competitors like China, or advancing technologies that can make us safer and more competitive," Alexander said, praising the investment in supercomputing.
"But, we have to be fiscally responsible and carefully spend our resources on programs that can achieve results.”
The Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which Alexander chairs, recently provided the Office of Science with $5 billion in discretionary spending in its 2017 Ominibus Appropriations Bill, which extended government to finish out the fiscal year. It also allocated $306 million for ARPA-E, and $1.02 billion for the Office of Nuclear Energy.
"The federal budget cannot be balanced by cutting discretionary spending, which is only 31 percent of federal spending," Alexander said Wednesday.
"Mandatory spending, which amounts to more than 60 percent of federal spending, is the cause of the nearly $20 trillion federal debt. The federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year."
A spokesperson from Alexander's office said the Omnibus was a better representation of Alexander's priorities for the Department of Energy and its sites in East Tennessee than Trump's proposed budget, adding that the President's budget request was not realistic.
Unrealistic budget proposal
Outgoing ORNL Director Thom Mason, who announced in February that he'd be leaving the position July 1, also said the President's proposal was unrealistic after Perry's visit to the lab in May.
“It’s a significant amount of money, there’s no way you can construct a budget like that without having impacts, Mason told News Sentinel reporter Tyler Whetstone.
"The question is whether or not it will ever see the light of day in terms of an actual bill. It seems unlikely since there is strong bi-partisan support for what we do, but it will be cause for nervousness and uncertainty because people will be concerned about their jobs."
Those concerns appeared two weeks ago at ORNL's Energy and Environmental Sciences Directorate after 13 people were laid off to "streamline" the Directorate. Employees said they believed the cuts were made because of a lack of funding. The Directorate falls under the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, for which Trump has proposed a nearly 70 percent cut.