House Subcommittee Considers Elimination of Energy Department

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Publication date: 
26 May 1995
Number: 
73

"Abolishing DOE does not abolish any of the real tasks assigned to
it."    --Donna Fitzpatrick, former Under Secretary of Energy

Over two days of hearings, the House Subcommittee on Government
Management, Information and Technology collected emphatic and
opposing views on the abolishment of the Department of Energy.  On
May 16, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary testified in defense of
her department.  On May 23, three former Energy Secretaries and two
former Under Secretaries of Energy gave their opinions on DOE's
future.

Most of the subcommittee members did not hold preconceived ideas
about the department's fate.  Chairman Steven Horn (R-CA) explained
that the hearing's purpose was to "explore the effects of several
different reform plans" for DOE.  If "we decapitate DOE and graft
its members onto other departments," asked John Spratt (D-SC), "how
much money would that save?"  Tom Davis (R-VA) voiced concern over
dismantling any agencies in haste, and Michael Flanagan (R-IL)
stressed the need to maintain the continuity of government
services.

O'Leary stated that her plans for reform and downsizing, coupled
with the Administration's National Performance Review, would result
in a better and more efficient department.  She raised concerns
that dismembering DOE's programs and handing them off to other
federal agencies would result in disruption, loss of mission focus,
and lowered morale.  O'Leary's plans include selling off such
functions as power marketing administrations and petroleum and oil
shale reserves.  Asked her estimate of the savings from abolishing
the department, she said that, if most of DOE's activities were
maintained elsewhere, eliminating the Office of the Secretary would
only save a few million dollars a year.  She noted that a CBO
assessment of eliminating the department in the Reagan years found
very little in savings.  Davis acknowledged "I'm not sure where the
savings are, either; over and above what you're doing."  Spratt
questioned the costs resulting from disruption and loss of focus
and time if DOE were dismantled.

On May 23, former Energy Secretary Donald Hodel testified that DOE
should be abolished.  John Herrington, Energy Secretary from  1985
to 1989, agreed that DOE "is perfectly positioned for downsizing,
streamlining, or total elimination."  Hodel, who was Secretary of
Energy from 1982 to 1985 and Secretary of the Interior from 1985 to
1989, argued that it would make more sense to put the
energy-related functions in a department of the Interior or Natural
Resources, which "has more to say about the production of energy
than DOE."  Herrington felt that for the billions of dollars spent
by DOE on energy research, "the results are mixed at best."

A third former Secretary of Energy, Adm. James Watkins (1989-1993),
announced that he was not there to "advocate either the retention
or abolishment of DOE."  He believed that the top priority was
management of the nation's nuclear complex, and whether it required
a Cabinet-level office or not was unimportant.  "Call it whatever
you like," he said.  He also noted that much of the "high-risk,
costly basic research" performed by the national labs could only be
done by the federal government, and "cannot be expected to be
craved as money-makers" by private industry.

The three witnesses concurred with O'Leary's plans to sell off
activities such as power marketing administrations and petroleum
reserves.  While Hodel and Herrington had no qualms about shifting
the nuclear safety mission to DOD, Watkins expressed reservations.
All three felt that the energy production functions fit more
properly into a department like Interior. 

A second witness panel consisted of two former Under Secretaries of
Energy.  Shelby Brewer (1981-1984) criticized the department for
excessive bureaucracy and a cluttered, incoherent mission, but
warned that it would be easier to achieve savings with all the
programs in one department rather than split among many agencies.
Donna Fitzpatrick (1989-1990) argued that the basic science done by
the national labs was an appropriate role for the federal
government, as was applied research performed for the government's
own use.  She added that while they could "no doubt benefit from
careful trimming," each of the non-weapons labs had some function
or facility that should be funded by the government, such as
particle accelerators, light sources, and test reactors.  She
admitted, however, that DOE's essential missions "might well be
managed by an independent, sub-cabinet agency."

A task force of House and Senate Republicans is expected to release
a draft bill to downsize or eliminate DOE on June 8.  When the
abolishment of DOE is discussed, one suggestion often raised is to
transfer DOE's basic science programs to a new "Department of
Science."  This idea is a favorite of House Budget Committee Vice
Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA), who appeared at the May 16 hearing
to advocate his plan to combine the science elements of DOE and the
Commerce Department with NASA, NSF, EPA, and the USGS.  Walker, who
chairs the House Science Committee, said that "after we reduce the
size and scope of government we should rationalize what remains
into cohesive units which address problems as they exist today."
Asked about a Department of Science, O'Leary responded that it
"strikes me as going in the opposite direction... toward a
monolithic agency, unclear about its mission."  She estimated that
such a department might require 77,000 employees and an annual
budget of $46 billion.  She also noted that science advisors for
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Bush and Clinton all opposed the idea.

In a written statement, House Science Committee Ranking Minority
Member George Brown (D-CA) questioned whether such a department
would improve coordination and availability of funding over the
current system, and whether it would provide adequate scientific
support for the government's mission agencies.  Another witness
added that, except for NSF, the federal science programs exist to
support the missions and objectives of the agencies that fund them.

For DOE, the next action will come in authorization and
appropriations bills.  Walker's Science Committee is the
department's authorizing committee, and the House Energy and Water
Development Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by John Myers
(R-IN), is the appropriations committee. 

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