Last week, the Senate confirmed Rick Perry as secretary of energy. Supporters point to his capabilities as a manager, while opponents doubt his commitment to protecting the Department of Energy and advancing its mission. Addressing department employees, Perry described his “journey” from having called for DOE’s elimination to being an advocate for its work.
On March 2, the Senate confirmed former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of energy with a 62–37 vote. Perry is among the last of President Trump’s Cabinet picks to receive congressional approval, having waited over 40 days since his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19. Major Energy Department decisions, including selecting nominees for senior appointments, have been on hold pending his arrival. Speaking to department employees the day after his confirmation, Perry joked that he found it to be a “fascinating process.”
As secretary, Perry will now have responsibility over a $14.5 billion R&D portfolio, and will oversee the management of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and of DOE’s 17 national laboratories. Perry could also find himself at the center of a looming battle between a Trump administration eager to cut government spending and lawmakers working to protect popular DOE programs.
Support for Perry split mainly along party lines
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, spoke in favor of Perry’s nomination prior to the confirmation vote. She emphasized that, inasmuch as DOE is defined by its unique and varied missions, it is also a “bureaucracy” with “tens of thousands of employees and contractors.”
DOE has roughly 100,000 civil service and contractor employees, and a total budget of about $30 billion, while Texas has about 300,000 state employees and a state budget in excess of $100 billion. Murkowski argued that Perry had proven himself to be a “good, strong, confident, capable manger” during his 14 years as governor. She added,
He will hold his employees and contractors accountable. We know that he will be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars. I think that he will work to continue to break down the research silos that have really frustrated the department and work to find ways that there can be greater collaboration, greater working together.
Murkowski also remarked that, while DOE is a deeply scientific organization, it is not necessary for someone with a scientific background to lead it. Addressing concerns that Perry would pursue an energy policy detrimental to the environment, she pointed out that, as governor, Perry had overseen the implementation of emissions reduction programs as well as a dramatic expansion of wind energy in his state.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for DOE’s budget, has previously said that he looks forward to working with Perry on doubling basic energy research funding, promoting nuclear energy, and expanding the nation’s supercomputing capabilities, as well as on other issues relating to national security, the national labs, and the development of clean and inexpensive energy sources.
In a statement welcoming the confirmation vote result, Alexander said that Perry “appreciates the role the Department of Energy plays in the management and modernization of our nuclear weapons. … He also understands that national laboratories like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are essential to maintaining our country’s brainpower advantage.”
Although Perry won the support of nine Democratic senators, most Democrats remained unconvinced that he is a good choice for DOE. They were particularly concerned by a news report published the morning of Perry’s hearing indicating the Trump administration’s budget could incorporate elements of a Heritage Foundation report. Among its recommendations, that report suggests rolling back or eliminating a number of DOE offices and programs, particularly those concerned with applied science and technology.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was not satisfied by Perry’s responses to questions on the subject, explaining,
Energy efficiency and affordability of our electricity markets are going to continue to require aggressive research and development. And to have a secretary who is going to emphatically push the Trump administration on supporting those is exactly what we wanted to hear in the committee. Unfortunately, four members of the committee asked about those various issues and they were dodged by the nominee. And in subsequent follow-up we could not get the commitment from the nominee on those important offices.
Since the hearing, concerns about the Trump administration’s plans for federal R&D have compounded. The administration recently announced it would seek $54 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. This past weekend, the Washington Post reported that the administration will seek a 26 percent cut in research programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The administration’s plans for DOE remain unconfirmed.
Perry assures DOE employees of his commitment to them
During his confirmation hearing, Perry expressed his strong appreciation for DOE’s various missions and said he would protect its scientists from political interference. In his address to department employees, Perry worked further to relieve doubts about his commitment to DOE, his tone alternating between self-effacing humor and a hushed reverence for its work.
Perry described what he called his “extraordinary journey” from having advocated the department’s elimination less than six years ago, saying,
I still get reminded on a regular basis of something I couldn’t remember in a debate about this agency. … I want to share with you, so you’ll kind of understand my journey along this way to end up right here, and for you to know what a powerful advocate you are going to have in that corner office.
Perry explained how he first began to move beyond his initially “very cursory knowledge” of DOE, when, in late 2012, Texas A&M University began spearheading a bid to manage Sandia National Laboratories. He said,
Going through this process … and knowing and learning about what you do, and the potential of what we have in front of us, and the jewels that these national labs are, gave me this incredibly new appreciation about the Department of Energy, about each of you and the role that you play, [and] the importance of commercialization of technology. … Think about the ability that you have, and that we collectively have in front of us, with the proper management and authority and direction, to literally go change the world. What a cool place to get up every day and go work at, that has the potential to do that.
Perry went on to characterize his own role as that of a manager. He said that he wanted his office to be open to the ideas of DOE staff, and that he hoped staff members would point out whatever “hurdles” were impeding labs “from being able to address the next big thing that they’re working on.” Perry also said that he would personally visit all the department’s national laboratories.
The strengths of Perry’s respective loyalties to DOE and to Trump may soon be tested if White House funding priorities clash with those of congressional appropriators. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for DOE’s budget, has already said he doubts that congressional Republicans would support the cuts expected under Trump’s plan. He remarked, “That’d be pretty devastating to most our labs and to the research they do.”
The same day that Perry was confirmed, the Heritage Foundation released a new report outlining actions he should take in his new role. In line with the think tank’s earlier report, it advocates moving DOE away from applied research, among other reforms.
The White House has announced that it will release its preliminary budget proposal on March 16.