Hill Passes Defense Authorization Bill

Article excerpt

Congress gave its blessing Oct. 9 to the Bush administration's nuclear weapons, threat reduction, and missile defense plans. But lawmakers did not give the administration everything it wanted and tasked it with making several new reports on U.S. policy.

Approved unanimously by the Senate and 359-14 by the House of Representatives, the fiscal year 2005 national defense authorization bill sets spending caps and policy guidelines for the Pentagon and the Department of Energy's national security-related programs. Congress approved specific funding levels for the Department of Defense earlier this year in the fiscal year 2005 Defense Appropriations Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in August. (See ACT, September 2004.) Bush has yet to give final approval to the authorization bill, but he is expected to do so soon.

The new measure imposes a $445 billion ceiling on how much the Pentagon and the Energy Department's National Nuclear security Administration (NNSA) can spend through Sept. 30 of next year. Established in March 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department that maintains the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and runs programs to secure or eliminate nuclear materials abroad to prevent their spread.

NNSA administers the Bush administration's most controversial nuclear weapons initiatives, including exploring modified and new types of nuclear warheads, reducing the time needed to resume nuclear testing, and planning for a future facility to annually churn out hundreds of plutonium pits, without which nuclear weapons do not work. The administration sought $96 million for these projects, and the authorization bill matched that request.

Yet, lawmakers signaled that they are not going to give the administration carte blanche. They ordered NNSA to provide a report by March of next year on plans for its Advanced Nuclear Weapons Concepts Initiative, which pertains to studying new nuclear warhead designs. Among the possibilities that the Pentagon has said it might investigate are warheads with explosive yields less than five kilotons, on which Congress lifted decade-old research restrictions in 2003. NNSA officials say they have not yet launched such research.

Congress also mandated two reports relating to the proposed plutonium-pit production facility. One study, due in January, requires NNSA to justify the need for the facility. Another, due in two years, calls for an independent study on NNSA efforts to "understand the aging of plutonium in nuclear weapons." At what pace and conditions plutonium deteriorates could affect assessments about whether a new facility must be built to ensure that U.S. nuclear warheads have pits that will work properly.

Despite the authorization bill's endorsement of the above programs, final decisions on funding will be made in the annual energy and water appropriations bill that is still being crafted by members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees. The Senate side is led by Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), who favors full funding; the House panel is led by Domenici's counterpart, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who cut funding for the programs. (see ACT, July/August 2004.)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham sent a Sept. 8 letter to Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-FIa.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, urging him to help reinstate the funding. The two secretaries asserted Hobson's cuts "would impede our ability to ensure the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent" and could jeopardize the administration's plans to almost halve the U.S. nuclear stockpile by 2012. (see ACT, July/August 2004.) Their argument is that, in order for the United States to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal safely, it must have the capability to build additional weapons in case a new threat emerges or a technical problem renders current weapons useless. …