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Democrats warn Trump’s Energy Department against ‘unlawful’ withholding of funds

Already-approved grants are being reviewed for consistency with Trump administration priorities, DOE says.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, seen here driving a 3-D printed vehicle at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee on May 22, is under pressure to release ARPA-E grant funding. CREDIT: AP Photo/Erik Schelzig
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, seen here driving a 3-D printed vehicle at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee on May 22, is under pressure to release ARPA-E grant funding. CREDIT: AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

Nearly 60 House Democrats are demanding answers from the Department of Energy about a delay in the disbursement of funds approved by Congress for cutting-edge energy technology projects that were already selected for awards.

Funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) projects was approved in previous budgets, for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The approved project grants are unrelated to President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, scheduled for release Tuesday, which is expected to include major cuts to the ARPA-E program.

“Small businesses and other grant recipients who have already moved forward with their research projects, their staffing adjustments, and their procurement decisions did so in good faith,” the House members wrote in a Tuesday letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “The withholding of anticipated funds will cause those companies and researchers unnecessary hardship and could inhibit their success.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), vice-ranking member of the House Science Committee, along with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), led 57 lawmakers in pressing Perry to immediately release funds to previously approved projects at ARPA-E. They also asked Perry to clarify DOE procedures for approving and funding grants.

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In late April, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, wrote a letter to Perry asking why DOE initiated a “no contract action” order in which funds were not being disbursed for already approved grants.

In a May 4 response, Perry’s chief of staff, Brian McCormack, said that the already-approved grants were being reviewed to ensure they are consistent with fiscal year 2018 administration priorities.

But the Democrats noted that under law, appropriations for FY16 and FY17 are not retroactively reviewable “under the lens of FY 2018 priorities.” Appropriations for FY16 and FY17 were already approved by Congress and signed into law by the president, they wrote.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. CREDIT: Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. CREDIT: Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Once appropriations have been made, federal agencies are required by law to direct appropriations to the programs for which they are dedicated, the lawmakers explained. In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, Congress “explicitly appropriated funds to the Department of Energy to fulfill ARPA-E’s legally authorized mission,” they wrote.

The “impoundment” of appropriated funds is an act by a president of not spending money that has been appropriated by Congress. During President Richard Nixon’s second term in office, Congress believed Nixon was abusing his authority to impound the funding of programs he opposed.

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Congress then passed the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which effectively removed the impoundment power of the president and required the president to obtain congressional approval to rescind specific government spending. Nixon ended up signing the act because his administration was then embroiled in the Watergate scandal and unwilling to provoke Congress.

In their Tuesday letter, the Democratic lawmakers noted that “inhibiting the flow of funds or interfering with the execution of appropriations in the manner directed by Congress is unlawful.”

Last week, DOE said it had released funding to three projects that previously were selected by ARPA-E as recipients of research money. Nonetheless, Johnson said in a statement sent to ThinkProgress that she still has “serious concerns,” given that at least 20 additional competitively selected awardees are still awaiting disbursement of their promised grant money.

Congress appropriated $291 million for ARPA-E in FY16, more than $70 million of which remains “unobligated” despite awardees already being selected. “We request that you immediately release all of these FY 2016 funds to these competitively selected project awardees,” the lawmakers said.

New administrations and agencies periodically re-evaluate programs. In his response to Johnson, McCormack noted that DOE’s Office of Management is the primary department conducting review of the awards. But the Democrats argued in the letter that this office “does not have the technical expertise to intervene in or override” a competitive grant selection process for advanced research projects.

McCormack also said that his office will, at some unspecified date in the future and after some unspecified review process, notify DOE department heads when the pending funds under review are ready for release. “This lack of accountability and transparency should be rectified,” the lawmakers said.

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The Democrats called for the immediate release of all remaining FY16 funds for projects that have already been competitively selected. If DOE refuses to immediately release the funds, the Democrats demanded the department provide a date by which the selected project teams can expect full funding. The lawmakers also requested an expected timeline for the disbursement of appropriated FY17 ARPA-E funds.