Base-Closing Panel for Energy Department?

The department's labs may be cut to post-Cold War size by a new base closing commission

Two House committees may soon hold hearings on a proposal to shut numerous Energy Department laboratories with the aid of a non-partisan review panel.

The proposal, pushed by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas., calls for Congress to create a lab-closing commission modeled on the Congressional Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which recently directed the Pentagon to shut down 28 major bases and 51 minor bases by 2000.

The commission's recommendations must be followed unless Congress votes to overturn them. The commission's previous base-closing efforts in 1991 and 1993 were not halted by Congress, because each base-closing effort affected only a minority of senators and representatives.

The hearings could be held by the House commerce and science committees, said Craig Murphy, a spokesman for Barton. No date has been set for the hearings, but "the current plan is to hold hearings to come up with a [formal] proposal," he said.

Plans for the hearings are being prepared by science chairman Robert Walker, R-Pa., and Barton, the chairman of the oversight and investigations panel of the commerce committee and a member of the science committee, said Murphy.

But to become law, the lab-closing proposal would have to win approval in the Senate, where the plan would be opposed by senators elected from states that host Energy Department laboratories.

The Energy Department operates nearly 30 laboratories, which cost $7 billion per year and employ 50,000 people, including 23,000 scientists and engineers, said DoE spokesman Jeff Sherwood. They include nine major national laboratories, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, based in Los Alamos, N.M., 10 single-purpose laboratories and nine small laboratories, he said.

These facilities -- several built during the Cold War to develop and test nuclear weaponry -- are already facing budget cuts as Republicans struggle to balance the budget by 2002.

But it is too early to say whether the Barton measure will become law, said a staff member at the science committee. The level of congressional support is unknown, and little work on alternatives is complete. For example, Barton's proposal may be sidelined by other proposals to privatize the labs and by increased efforts to convert them to commercial work, she said. "There's a lot that needs to be done," she said.

Regardless, the labs face a radically different future. For example, they may suffer a roughly 35 percent cut in non-defense funding over the next seven years.

Some House Republicans are seeking to eliminate the department altogether. One House proposal, which is unlikely to pass, calls for the elimination of the department and the transfer of the three major nuclear-weapon labs to the Pentagon. This "multipronged attack on the department" is unwise, and closing the labs would be foolish, said Sherwood.

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