Nuclear Weapons Budget and the Budget Control Act

August 15, 2011 | 1:13 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

How will the administration’s nuclear weapons budget fare under the recent budget agreement? The bottom line seems to be that it will face around a 10% cut below the administration’s request.

Where those cuts will fall, however, is an open question.The administration requested almost $11.8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which includes both nuclear weapons and nonproliferation funding. The House called for $10.6 billion in NNSA funding, $1.2 billion less than the request and roughly equal to FY2011. Most dramatically, it cut one-third of the funding for the planned Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). The administration considers this (expensive) facility to be a high-priority item, and its completion is key to increasing the production of new plutonium “pits,” the fissile material core of a nuclear weapon.

Under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), total security spending must be cut by $4 billion below Fiscal Year 2011 levels, at least according to Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget. But total security spending includes far more than just defense: veterans affairs, homeland security, and international programs are also included under the BCA definition.

In the House, this means different things to different bills. The defense appropriation bill, which accounts for roughly three-quarters of BCA “security” spending, set funding at $17 billion above FY11 levels. The State Department/Foreign Operations budget, however, is almost $9 billion below FY11 levels in the House bill. Across all the House bills, security spending in total is roughly $6.5 billion above FY11 levels, so $10.5 billion will need to be cut from House levels in order to reach the BCA mandate.

According to Congressional staff, the House will not revisit the bills it has passed. The Senate has only passed the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, with funding at $600 million below FY11 levels. Now that the BCA has determined broad topline numbers, the Senate will develop budget numbers based on those levels for the rest of the appropriations bills.

It is unclear, however, how many of those bills will pass the Senate. It certainly will not pass all or even most of them by September 30, the end of the fiscal year. As a result, the near-term outcome will likely be determined by a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating from October 1 for an unknown period.

One question is what funding level the CR will set. CRs normally require keeping funding levels equal to the prior year’s funding, but that might not be the case this year. According to an administration source, the CR could either set funding to meet the BCA levels, or it could combine those with the levels set by the House Appropriations Committee where the latter are lower than FY11 levels. The second approach would further reduce funding across a variety of programs, particularly in the State Department/Foreign Operations budget as highlighted above.

A second question is whether the exemption that was applied to funding for NNSA in FY11 will continue. Under the exemption, funding for the NNSA was allowed to increase even though the rest of the budget was CR-limited to FY10 levels. The exemption came about because the administration and leading Republicans, in particular Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), argued that the funding was essential. This was part of the deal that allowed the Senate to support the New START arms control agreement. Will that agreement continue in the new budget environment?

In the longer term, final FY12 budget numbers will probably be set by House-Senate conference committees using bills that passed in the House but were only approved by committee in the Senate (advantage House), but where the Senate levels are already at required amounts (advantage Senate). For non-defense spending, the FY11 BCA amounts are actually higher than the House funding levels, but for security spending, the House numbers must come down by the $10.5 billion described above, out of a total of $694.5 billion.

In sum, this means that the overall cuts the House has made to NNSA programs are not likely to be restored, but where the cuts are applied may shift. You can see our first take on the House actions here. Will the House cut in the CMRR-NF funding hold? The Senate will have its say, but I’m betting that cut will stay.

Thanks to David Culp of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, who compiled the total budgets of all the House passed bills and calculated the amounts that fall into the BCA’s definition of security spending. 

About the author

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Stephen Young lobbies administration officials, members of Congress, and journalists to advance UCS security-related campaigns, largely focusing on arms control, nuclear weapons policy, missile defense, and nuclear threat reduction programs. He also works with scientists across the country to help amplify their concerns on critical national security policies.