House Hearing on the Department of Energy National Laboratories

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Publication date: 
8 September 1995

Two House science subcommittees yesterday held an exhaustive
all-day joint hearing on the future of the Department of Energy
national laboratories.  Although there was an all-star witness list
and considerable Member interest, the outlook for the laboratories
remains clouded.  If there was one message to be taken away from
the hearing, it is that the laboratories will be changed, although
how and when this will occur is still an unknown.

Interest in redefining the national laboratories is not new.  Since
1990, 12 reports have been issued on the labs.  What has
intensified the drive to change the management of the laboratories,
if not the laboratories themselves, is what is driving almost every
other decision being made in Washington these days: the need to
reduce federal spending.  The laboratories are held in very high
regard by Members of Congress, but as House Energy and Environment
Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) exclaimed in
his opening remarks, "The Cold War is over!"  He continued that
while he and his colleagues have an open mind about the future of
the laboratories, they do not have "open pocketbooks."  House
Science Committee Ranking Minority Member George Brown
(D-California) added that "the time is appropriate, and we are
going to have to do something."  Brown offered his general
observation that any government agency can be cut by one-third, and
if done the right way, can still function.

There are now four bills pending in the House concerning the
laboratories.  The bill to watch would seem to be H.R. 2142, the
Department of Energy Laboratories Mission Act, which, according to
a subcommittee brief, "defines the criteria for missions of the
laboratories, and directs the Secretary of Energy to assign
missions and streamline the labs, if necessary, to accomplish those
missions."  The other three bills are aimed more directly at
consolidating, closing, or reducing the size of the labs.  H.R.
2142 is sponsored by House Basic Research Subcommittee Chairman
Steve Schiff (R-New Mexico), who because of his chairmanship, and
the location of two major national laboratories in his state, will
play an important role in shaping any legislation.  Schiff said in
his opening remarks, "There are those who believe that...we should
close down the Department of Energy and some of the labs.  I do

Acting DOE Deputy Secretary Charles B. Curtis testified "there are
problems," and explained how the department is moving ahead to
implement many of the management changes called for by the Galvin
Task Force.  He said that H.R. 2142 is consistent with DOE's
efforts.  Under close questioning by House Science Committee
Chairman Robert Walker (R-Pennsylvania), Curtis explained that
management reforms will take many years across several
administrations.  While DOE embraced many of the Task Force's
recommendations, Walker was able to draw a clear response from
Curtis about corporatizing the laboratories, as the report called
for.  "We certainly rejected that recommendation," Curtis said,
adding that Congress would be very unlikely to give the
laboratories money without having control over how it would be

Rohrabacher was not overly impressed by DOE's efforts.  He asked
Curtis if it would not be possible to close down at least one of
the laboratories.   Curtis replied, "sure," saying that it would
probably be possible to close one of the existing 30 laboratories.

Also testifying were three panels of experts from private industry,
universities, and the directors of six major national laboratories.
Robert Galvin made an apt comment describing the past and current
situation when he said bluntly to the House members, "you are a big
part of the problem."

Schiff characterized the outlook for the laboratories when he said
to the witnesses, and to the standing-room-only audience, that the
good news was that there was so much interest in the labs that it
took the subcommittee members two and one-half hours just to
receive testimony from Curtis.  This seems to parallel the current
situation: while the labs are of keen interest, it is likely that
many more words will be written and said about the laboratories
before any major legislative action occurs.

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