GAO: Trump impounded $91M in DOE funds illegally

The Trump administration illegally withheld $91 million in fiscal year 2017 research funding at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), violating the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, according to a Government Accountability Office report yesterday.

GAO said that under the law, “Agencies may only withhold budget authority from obligation if the President has transmitted a special message to Congress.” The Congressional watchdog agency added that because DOE made the funds available after GEO notified the agency of the violation, “we are not transmitting a report to Congress under the Impoundment Control Act.”

When the White House submitted the administration’s proposed budget for FY 2018 last May, it called for killing ARPA-E. The DOE program was fashioned by the George W. Bush administration nine years ago on the model of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, designed to move government-funded research to commercial applications. The budget request, GAO noted, asked Congress to cancel $46 million in unobligated balances and set aside another $45 million to fund shutting down ARPA-E “by mid-2019.”

ARPA-E’s funding from Congress is not subject to annual appropriations, but is what Washington insiders refer to as “no-year money.” It is available as the agency sees fit to spend it, but, under law, it must spend it unless the president notifies Congress of his intend to rescind the funding. If Congress doesn’t approve the recisssion in 45 days, the money must be spent.

At DOE, word came down from top-level management to ARPA-E to cut off the $91 million and the agency complied. Alerted to the action, GAO began an investigation. In responding to the GAO investigation, DOE acknowledged that “limited oral conversations regarding whether to withhold any budget authority in the ARPA-E appropriation during FY 2017 pursuant to the FY 2018 President’s Budget did occur,” and said the funds have now been released.

Congress passed the impoundment act in 1974, during the Nixon administration. The White House, in disputes with Congress over spending priorities, was routinely impounding funds at major federal research agencies for projects it opposed, including at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The 1974 law also created the House and Senate budget committees, set up the Congressional Budget Office, and changed the federal fiscal year beginning from July 1 to October 1.

Science magazine reported today that as a result of the GAO report, and DOE’s decision to allocate the funds, ARPA-E this morning “unveiled a $100 million grants competition.” The article quoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry, “We are asking American energy entrepreneurs and researchers to show us the next breakthrough in energy security.”

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement, reported by Utility Dive, that the actions by the Trump administration and Energy Secretary Perry “ignore congressional intent and are explicitly prohibited by law. The president cannot ignore statutory requirements or funding direction provided by Congress.”

–Kennedy Maize