Purse Power Protects Clean Energy Priorities

By Christopher Guith

It’s disposal time in Washington. If the Byzantine and confusing federal appropriations process could be summed up in a single phrase, it would most certainly be the famous adage that “the President proposes, and Congress disposes.”

The process goes something like this. The President kicks off the budget cycle at the beginning of each year with the State of the Union and subsequent delivery of a proposed spending plan to Congress. By the time summer vacation begins, however, Congress is well on its way to disposing of these recommendations and replacing them with its own set of spending priorities.

It is the Constitution’s “power of the purse” embodied, and it plays out each year with few exceptions, regardless of the political makeup of the respective branches. This week, we are pleased the House of Representatives will take a key step toward disposing of a particularly flawed proposal by the Trump Administration: deep cuts to energy research and development spending.  

The administration’s budget takes an indiscriminate machete to important Department of Energy technology programs, requesting major reductions for spending on programs that support nuclear energy, fossil energy, energy efficiency, renewables, and more. The most glaring disconnect probably involves a proposal to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E.

We have long been outspoken supporters of the agency, and in fact were among the first to call on Congress to create it way back in 2007. This support has only grown over the years as ARPA-E continues to demonstrate a record of strong management and successful grants. That’s why we are proud to be part of a large and diverse coalition of 88 entities that are calling on Congress to increase ARPA-E funding in this year’s budget (as well as a similar coalition working to restore funding for other DOE R&D program areas).

For its part, the Department of Energy itself at least partially recognizes the importance of ARPA-E. Its budget request sent to Congress describes the agency’s mission and work in glowing terms:

“ARPA-E catalyzes transformational energy technologies to enhance the economic and energy security of the United States. ARPA-E funds high-potential, high-impact energy projects that are too early for private sector investment but could significantly advance the ways we generate, store, distribute and use energy. ARPA-E plays a unique role in DOE’s R&D organization, complementing and expanding the impact of DOE’s basic science and applied energy programs.

ARPA-E focuses on energy technologies that can be meaningfully advanced with a targeted investment over a defined period of time. ARPA-E’s rigorous program design, close coordination with other DOE offices and federal agencies, competitive project selection process, and hands-on engagement, ensure thoughtful expenditures while empowering America’s energy researchers with funding, technical assistance, and market awareness.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, except perhaps to add that any successful effort to address climate change must include game-changing technological breakthroughs—i.e. exactly the kind of ideas that ARPA-E helps to get off the ground. By all indications, DOE Secretary Rick Perry agrees. He regularly sings the praises of ARPA-E, and in fact just cut a video promo touting the great work of the agency ahead of its annual energy summit that will be held next month.

To sum up: ARPA-E has strong bipartisan support in Congress, is loved by a wide range of business, academic, and environmental stakeholders, and has a champion in DOE Secretary Perry. If it is so popular, then, where is the rub?

The answer likely lies with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which showed its hand last week in a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) that was delivered to the House on its broader spending package that it is considering. Tucked inside the lengthy bureaucratic communication of policy priorities is this statement opposing House legislation restoring funding for ARPA-E on the grounds that it "makes little strategic sense given the existence of applied energy research elsewhere within the Department."

This logic is, to put it gently, extremely weak. The existence of “applied research elsewhere” does not mean that such research is duplicative or even overlapping. OMB staff would do well to read DOE’s own description of ARPA-E—especially the part explaining that “ARPA-E plays a unique role in DOE’s R&D organization” as a “complement” to other applied programs.

We hope someday that the proverbial light bulb comes on at OMB, but in the meantime we are fortunate that its role ends at proposal, and that Congress appears committed to a complete disposal of this argument. 

So we applaud House legislators for restoring funding at ARPA-E as well as other DOE R&D program offices, and call on members of both parties to, beginning with a vote this week, preserve this funding through negotiations and final passage.


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