Congress Approves DOE Reorganization; Clinton Leaves Control With Energy Secretary

UNWILLING TO VETO the fiscal year 2000 defense authorization bill, President Clinton approved the partial separation of the nation's nuclear weapons complex from the Department of Energy (DOE) on October 5, but infuriated congressional advocates of the reorganization by transferring control of the new National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) back to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Proposed in the wake of allegations of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons labs, the reorganization called for in the defense bill would have provided the new nuclear agency substantial independence from DOE in establishing its own safety, security, environmental and counterintelligence policies, contrary to the administration's preference.

Initially opposed to the plan, Secretary Richardson finally gave his support in July after negotiating with the Senate for greater DOE control of the agency, but a House-Senate conference later altered the bill to give the NNSA more independence. When the House and Senate both overwhelmingly passed the revised bill in September, Richardson threatened to recommend the president veto the bill, but reversed his position after the White House indicated that a veto was unlikely because of the legislation's strong bipartisan support and inclusion of a widely popular pay raise for military personnel.

But after signing the bill October 5, President Clinton stunned Congress when he ordered Richardson to "perform all duties and functions" of undersecretary for nuclear security, the position formed to lead the NNSA. In explaining his decision, Clinton warned that the new law would impair Richardson's ability to fulfill his obligations as Energy Secretary and jeopardize changes in security and counterintelligence functions that he had already made.

Richardson was further instructed to assign DOE employees to "a concurrent office within the NNSA" in order to "mitigate the risks to clear chain of command presented by the Act's establishment of other redundant functions by the NNSA." Finally, Richardson was ordered to operate the new NNSA in compliance with existing federal environmental laws and standards. The president's statement also made clear that no candidate for the undersecretary position would be offered for the Senate's approval until Congress had remedied the reorganization plan's "deficiencies."

The president's instructions outraged several members of Congress who had worked to draft the law. In a letter to the president, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-SC) strongly protested the president's signing statement, warning that unless reversed, the president's decision would "certainly serve to strengthen already substantial support for creating an agency entirely independent of DOE to manage the nation's nuclear programs." (Emphasis in original.) Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) also made clear his anger at Richardson and the administration, describing the president's action as "an absolute frontal attack."