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Congressional Oversight of U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Stephen I. Schwartz
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Monterey Institute for International Studies
October 2008

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Congressional oversight of the U.S. nuclear weapons program—both the operation and maintenance of deployed forces by the Department of Defense and the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons by the Department of Energy—is generally confined to the annual authorization and appropriation bills, the means by which Congress allocates funding for such activities. Debate, when it occurs, usually focuses on numbers and types of weapons rather than on the broader questions of strategy and policy governing how such weapons would be used. Institutional issues, in particular the division of responsibility for nuclear weapons among many different committees and subcommittees, tend to force members to focus on their narrow areas of jurisdiction at the expense of the larger picture. Notwithstanding these impediments, Congress has recently taken action to cut funding for questionable programs and to demand a coherent strategy for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Background and History

With few exceptions, Congress has historically shown little interest in nuclear weapons matters except where budgets or constituent needs are concerned.[1] Those members that did follow the issue either chaired a relevant committee or subcommittee or represented a state or district housing one or more nuclear weapons installations.

Congressional oversight can have two connotations—to look over and to overlook. Too often, Congress, by its own admission, has practiced the latter. Given that U.S. nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs have consumed at least $7.5 trillion (in adjusted 2005 dollars) since 1940 this is surprising, until one realizes that insufficient oversight contributed to Congress' lack of knowledge about the overall scale of the program. In fact, congressional scrutiny of nuclear weapons programs can be characterized as a story of extremes—long periods of inattention punctuated by short periods of concern and action. In general, Congress has taken action following a crisis or scandal (real or perceived), which typically focuses significant media or public attention on a specific problem.

In 1984, then Senator Sam Nunn (Democrat of Georgia), a member of the Armed Services Committee since 1972, told a reporter, "The budget cycle drives the Congress, and the Congress drives the executive branch to such an extent that we don't have time to think about strategy. We never had a strategy hearing since I've been in the Senate."[2] Four years later, amidst mounting revelations that the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons facilities were unsafe to both workers and the general public, Representative John Spratt (Democrat of South Carolina), told a reporter, "In truth, most of our time is spent on the annual budget process and we have little left for oversight."[3] In fact, the last hearings in the House of Representatives on nuclear strategy were in the mid-1990s and the last Senate hearing was before the Foreign Relations Committee in 1980 and concerned President Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59, which mandated more flexible nuclear strike options and stated that U.S. nuclear forces must be able to find and win a protracted nuclear war.[4]

This inattention and lack of sustained focus led to critical disconnects between what Congress thought it was achieving with U.S. nuclear policy and what was actually happening. One of the most striking of these concerns the popular notion in the 1950s that nuclear weapons provided "a bigger bang for a buck."[5] Policymakers assumed that because a conventional bomb could kill tens or a few hundred people while one nuclear weapon could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people, nuclear weapons were therefore more cost effective.[6] Because the Soviet Union was believed to field superior conventional forces, and because it was felt that the United States could engage in a conventional arms race with the Soviet Union and remain financially solvent, nuclearizing conventional forces was considered an ideal solution. But neither Congress nor the military leaders that supported this policy (largely for their own parochial reasons) understood that this was a gross oversimplification and that in many ways nuclear weapons were more expensive than conventional ones. Moreover, nuclear weapons never replaced conventional weapons, so the theoretical savings were never realized. Yet after authorizing a massive expansion in the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the early 1950s (largely in response to the Korean War), Congress never examined or reevaluated its assumptions, even after military leaders began to realize they were mistaken.[7]

The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

For more than thirty years, one committee wielded exceptional influence over all matters pertaining to the U.S. nuclear arsenal (as well as the commercial development of nuclear power). The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) thus played a dominant role in what Congress did—and did not do—regarding U.S. nuclear policy. As one historical study noted, the JCAE is "probably the most powerful Congressional committee in the history of the nation."[8]

The JCAE was the only committee created by an act of legislation (the Atomic Energy Act of 1946). It was given complete jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to atomic energy, allowing it to hold hearings and write legislation. In 1954, it gained the additional power to authorize spending for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was responsible for nuclear weapons research and development, testing, and manufacture. As a joint committee, it had eighteen members, nine each from the House of Representatives and the Senate. Significantly, it was exempt from the membership restrictions governing every other congressional committee, which meant that members could and did serve in leadership positions on the JCAE and, for example, the appropriations and armed services committees, giving those members and the JCAE greater influence during policy and budgetary discussions.

From 1947 through 1953, the JCAE retained near total control over all information pertaining to U.S. nuclear weapons, communicating little of substance to the rest of Congress, which relied on the judgment and recommendations of the JCAE when casting votes. Until 1951, even its own members were unaware of the total size of the nuclear stockpile because they repeatedly refused AEC briefings on the subject, apparently believing the information was so sensitive even they could not be trusted with it. From 1947 to 1951, seventy-five percent of JCAE hearings were held in closed or executive session, and until 1954 it only issued a few reports to Congress on its work. As a result, during this period just eighteen members of Congress had any detailed knowledge of the multibillion dollar weapons program on which the country had staked its security and survival. Even after committee deliberations became more open, the JCAE exerted considerable influence over the budget process.

The JCAE was not just uniquely powerful within Congress. Its joint status gave it unusual bargaining power with the executive branch, which under normal circumstances would have to work with separate House and Senate committees, each with their own concerns and priorities. The JCAE was authorized to appoint staff and use personnel and services (including from the executive branch) as it deemed necessary, enabling the committee staff to form close relationships with staff at the AEC and its weapons facilities (so close, that JCAE staff often knew more about the AEC's operation than the AEC commissioners). When former JCAE staff director William L. Borden accused scientist and "father" of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer of being a communist spy, the allegations carried special weight.[9] In later years, the JCAE was not above wielding its power to get its way, as when in 1962 it forced President John F. Kennedy to appoint its executive director, James T. Ramey, to the AEC.[10] In 1974, in an effort to honor longtime retiring JCAE chairman Representative Chet Holifield (Democrat-California), known by the nickname, "Mr. Atomic Energy," the staff unilaterally renamed Oak Ridge National Laboratory after Holifield, an action that Congress, at the behest of the dismayed Tennessee congressional delegation and Oak Ridge community leaders, reversed in late 1975.

Perhaps most important, the JCAE enjoyed a privileged status during the budget process. As one study explains:

Not content to merely act on the annual requests submitted by the AEC, it routinely questioned AEC officials to elicit information on funding requests that had been submitted to the president only to be reduced or eliminated by the Bureau of the Budget before submission to Congress. Then, using its wide-ranging authority under the Atomic Energy Act, it asked the AEC for the details of those programs, often adding funds back into the AEC budget for those programs that it deemed necessary (but that were often opposed by the AEC). The JCAE appeared to be "the only Congressional committee which systematically reviews the internal budget-making process of an executive agency and the Bureau of the Budget in this manner," in effect becoming "an important participant and pleader in the formulation of the atomic-energy budget," and what it could not obtain by "negotiation," it sought "to impose through authorization legislation."[11]

As two historians of the JCAE noted, following the first Soviet atomic test in 1949, the JCAE "generally encouraged and exhorted the willing but cautious AEC to expand programs which the JCAE regarded as important and functioned as a 'big brother,' cooperating with and protecting the AEC against its critics and those who favored curtailment of its program."[12]

The JCAE's influence on the expansion of the nuclear weapons complex and the growth of the U.S. nuclear arsenal cannot be underestimated. If in 1946 Congress had put the atomic-energy program under the control of conventional committees of Congress, "almost certainly, the national investment in atomic energy would have been substantially less and the present level of technology considerably lower."[13]

Post-JCAE Oversight

Congress dissolved the JCAE in 1977 as part of a post-Watergate reorganization and in response to growing frustration with the committee's tight control of nuclear policy matters (around the same time, the Atomic Energy Commission was split into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration, which subsequently became the Department of Energy). The House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House and Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations subcommittees were the primary beneficiaries of this decision. Today, more than 30 committees and subcommittees can claim jurisdiction over some aspect of the nuclear weapons program. In theory, this increases opportunities for oversight. But it also means that no single committee sees the whole picture, or the often important connections between programs.

During the post-JCAE era, Congress has taken significant action on nuclear weapons-related matters five times. From 1988-1992, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (particularly the House, which established a special panel for the purpose) investigated the reasons behind the collapse of the DOE nuclear weapons production complex and charted a future course, as facility after facility shut down in the wake of serious safety or environmental concerns. Congress itself was complicit in the collapse. As members explained:

Representative Albert Bustamante (Democrat of Texas), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the issues were too complex: "Anytime we get into a problem like now, nobody on the committee knows what is what. We just delegate things to the Department of Energy." Senator James Exon (Democrat of Nebraska), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, agreed. The issues, he said, "are not easily understood by those of us who are not scientists." A spokesman for House Armed Services chairman Les Aspin (Democrat of Wisconsin) noted that the weapons complex was not considered on an equal basis with the weapons systems that the committee normally spent a great deal of time debating. "It has been a poor stepchild. It just doesn't fit in around here." An aide to Senator Sam Nunn (Democrat of Georgia), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted that "for a long time Congress just rubber stamped the Department of Energy" and that as a result the complex suffered from "benign neglect."[14]

As deferred environmental concerns at these facilities began to assume increasing political and budgetary importance, Congress simultaneously delved into proposals for cleaning up decades of nuclear and toxic waste. But by 1993, attention began to wane as political circumstances changed and environmental restoration and waste management became institutionalized within the DOE with a large and growing budget.

The debate and enactment in September 1992 of a nine month nuclear testing moratorium marked another occasion where Congress, and in particular the Senate, exerted itself on nuclear policy. The moratorium, enacted over the strong objections of the George H.W. Bush administration, was subsequently extended (after some initial hesitation) by President Bill Clinton and remains in effect today, notwithstanding the Senate's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1999.

More recently, in 2004 and 2005, Congress eliminated funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a new initiative of the George W. Bush administration to enable nuclear weapons to hold at risk and destroy hardened and deeply buried targets such as Russian command and control bunkers or Iran's uranium enrichment complex at Natanz. This decision, initiated and led by Republicans, marks only the second time in history that Congress has terminated a nuclear weapons program supported by the executive branch. The previous time was in 1975, when Congress canceled the Safeguard Antiballistic Missile System over questions about its effectiveness and after the U.S. Army announced plans—before Safeguard was fully operational—to shut it down the following year. In 2007, Congress eliminated funding for and expressed continuing skepticism about the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which was originally intended to sustain the nuclear arsenal well into the twenty-first century but later supported by the DOE as the linch pin for modernizing and rebuilding the entire nuclear weapons production complex. The fate of the RRW, and the complex, will now be decided by the next administration.

Impediments to Change

Even as members of Congress continue to recognize their oversight shortcomings, little has changed.[15] There are a number of reasons for this.

Except for the occasional crisis or scandal, there is little public or media concern to motivate members to devote greater attention to nuclear issues. Apart from members whose constituents work at nuclear facilities, there is little career incentive to get involved in a sustained way. Unlike even ten or fifteen years ago, there are only a handful of members in both the House and Senate who are considered experts on nuclear issues. As Amy Woolf, an analyst at the Congressional Research Services, wrote recently:

The issue simply has not been considered "hot" enough to attract the level of interest or attention needed to sustain [a broad] debate. If anything, nuclear weapons policy and programs are relatively low priorities for most members of Congress. . . . The budget outlays are not that significant when compared with other portions of the defense budget, and for most members it is hard to see a connection between U.S. nuclear weapons and the threats we face today. Those members who do focus on national security issues are far more likely to spend their time reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq and the war on terrorism and becoming expert in the weapons and operations needed to sustain those efforts. Even if a new committee on nuclear weapons policy could attract enough members to serve, it is difficult to ensure that the members, or the Congress as a whole, would be able to devote enough time and resources to the issues to gather the level of expertise needed to both participate in and sustain a comprehensive debate.[16]

In addition, as we have seen many members feel they lack the knowledge necessary to understand these programs (the abolition of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1994 by the newly-elected Republican majority did not help matters). The secrecy surrounding many nuclear programs also serves as a formidable barrier to acquiring knowledge from the often reluctant executive branch, conducting oversight, or engaging in discussions with colleagues or constituents. With so many more pressing matters on their agenda, and with few places to turn for on the job training, members gravitate to issues they know. Personal and committee staff resources are also limited, so that staffers typically cover several broad issues areas, constraining their ability to focus in a sustained and effective way on nuclear weapons.

And finally, the organizational structure of Congress divides jurisdiction for nuclear weapons issues among dozens of committees and subcommittees, preventing anyone from being able to see the big picture. The annual budget authorization and appropriation process also ensures that most of the attention will be on the proposed budget and what it will buy and not on the policies use to justify the spending programs in those budgets.

Will this ever change? Woolf, noting that Congress failed to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to reevaluate U.S. nuclear policy, is not optimistic:

Short of a nuclear explosion in a conflict, it is hard to imagine how Congress or the executive branch could generate enough interest in U.S. nuclear weapons to bring about a "national debate" on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. And, in the absence of truly "national debate" that engages more than a small handful of analysts inside and outside government, it is hard to imagine a comprehensive debate among a significant number of members of Congress. A relatively small number of members will always remain interested, either because they have nuclear weapons facilities in their districts or have demonstrated a long-standing interest in the issues, but it is unclear that this core constituency will be able to devote the time or resources to a wide-ranging and long-term debate on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. In this environment, where U.S. nuclear weapons receive so little attention throughout the analytic and political communities, they are likely to remain a "niche" issue in Congress, as well. [17]

[1] This issue brief is based on Stephen I. Schwartz, "Congressional Oversight of the Bomb," in Stephen I. Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), pp. 484-518.
[2] Michael R. Gordon. "Sam Nunn for the Defense-Georgia Boy Makes Good as Gentle Pentagon Prodder," National Journal, March 31, 1984, p. 614.
[3] Fox Butterfield, "Troubled at Atomic Bomb Plants: How lawmakers Missed the Signs," New York Times, November 28, 1998, p. A1.
[4] Schwartz, "Congressional Oversight of the Bomb," pp. 492-493.
[5] The news media seems to have first used this phrase in connection with nuclear weapons in a 1954 Newsweek profile of Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson. The article criticized the administration's "leading spokesmen" for describing the defense program with "catchy, all embracing phrases like 'the new look.' They have talked of getting more for less, of 'a bigger bang for a buck.'" See "Defense and Politics ... Battle of the Potomac," Newsweek, March 22, 1954, p. 28. Interestingly, this article goes on to report (p. 30) that "atomic weapons do come into the new look, but in a totally different way—to build up the fire power of the Army, not to provide the same fire power with fewer men. The U.S. can do that because it's now producing atomic weapons in quantity."
[6] As early as 1949, Vannevar Bush, head of the National Defense Research Committee during World War II, warned against making such comparisons: "The cost of trinitrotoluol, the TNT that is the most common high explosive, is less than a dollar a pound when it is manufactured in quantity Built into bombs, delivered on a target hundreds of miles distant by an intricate aircraft manned by a highly trained crew subject to the attrition of war, its cost may well mount to hundreds of dollars a pound. Behind this ratio lies the opportunity for gross fallacies in reasoning.... Moreover, it is not to ignore the important element that the cost of atomic bombs is largely a peacetime cost, for they cannot be manufactured in a hurry during war, as can high explosive. Costs, that is, effort in terms of labor and materials, are necessarily spread over a long interval to produce atomic bombs, and this fact greatly affects our reasoning concerning them." Vannevar Bush, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1949), pp. 94, 106.
[7] Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, pp. 18-21, 64-68.
[8] Harold P. Green and Alan Rosenthal, Government of the Atom: The Integration of Powers (New York: Atherton Press, 1963), p. 266.
[9] Schwartz, "Congressional Oversight of the Bomb," p. 504.
[10] Ramey, who had engineered the policies that led to the JCAE's dominance over the AEC in the mid- to late-1950s, had many foes inside the commission (several of whom announced that they would resign if Ramey were appointed). The administration also had serious doubts about the wisdom of nominating someone who had worked so vigorously to render the executive branch subordinate to the legislative. The JCAE forced the issue by refusing to consider the nominations of anyone else. At the time, there were two vacancies on the five-man commission, making it difficult to assemble a quorum and thus delaying important work. Eventually, the administration gave way and Ramey was nominated and confirmed by his former employers. See Green and Rosenthal, Government of the Atom, p. 107.
[11] Schwartz, "Congressional Oversight of the Bomb," p. 511.
[12] Green and Rosenthal, Government of the Atom, p. 5.
[13] Green and Rosenthal, Government of the Atom, p. 266. Another analyst writes, "The vast expansion of plant for the production of nuclear materials...to implement Truman's decision [on the hydrogen bomb] and to outproduce the Russians, has been the single most important achievement that can be credited to the JCAE. For it led before long to the era of nuclear plenty with the diversification of nuclear weapons and strategies, the promotion of other major military and civilian uses for nuclear materials, and all the problems of subsidies, embarrassingly large hoards, and eventual economic dislocation characteristic of other too-successful government critical commodity stockpiling programs." See Harold Orlans, Contracting for Atoms: A study of Public Policy Issues Posed by the Atomic Energy Commission's Contracting for Research, Development, and Managerial Services (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1967), pp. 160-161.
[14] Butterfield, "Troubled at Atomic Bomb Plants," quoted in Schwartz, "Congressional Oversight of the Bomb," p. 498.
[15] Jonathan Weisman, "Who's Minding the Store?," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1997, pp. 33-34.
[16] Amy F. Woolf, "Congress and U.S. Nuclear Weapons: Review and Oversight of Policies and Programs," Nonproliferation Review, 14 (November 2007), p. 513.
[17] Woolf, "Congress and U.S. Nuclear Weapons," p. 514.