By: Daniel Bresette, Ben Somberg
We’ve seen a constant tension in the last two years: Congress has maintained funding for the Department of Energy’s investments in energy efficiency, but under the Trump administration, the Department has at times slowed research and development work and other efficiency programs. For instance, the GAO found in 2017 that the Department had failed to spend ARPA-E funds appropriated by Congress, and last year NRDC raised serious questions about how much, or little, the Department had actually spent in the 2018 fiscal year on energy efficiency and renewable energy research.
The latest wrinkle in the “will-they-won’t-they” spend the money drama emerged last week, when the administration, again proposing deep cuts in energy efficiency for the coming fiscal year, called for “$343 million for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, plus a proposal to use $353 million in prior year balances for a total of $696 million.” A detailed budget estimate for the Department, released by the White House on Monday, similarly said that $353 million “shall be derived from prior year unobligated balances previously appropriated.”
Unobligated balances? That’s a fancy term for funding that Congress authorizes that the administrative branch doesn’t spend. The administration is saying it wants to use such money for next year. Just how much unobligated funding currently exists is not clear.
Of course, the executive branch is generally legally required to use the funds appropriated by Congress – it’s not an optional thing. In September, to make the point extra clear, Congress even specified, when it passed the appropriations bill for the current year, that it was directing the Department to “fully execute the funds appropriated in a timely manner.”
Department of Energy officials, in several instances, have said they will carry out the will of Congress. Secretary Rick Perry, for example, told Congress that, “where you appropriate and where you authorize we will work to make you very proud that we manage it absolutely the most efficient way that it can be.”
The administration’s new proposal – and it’s stated reliance on not spending money Congress has directed it to spend – raises more questions about its commitment to following Congress’s direction.