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Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) says the Department of Energy is flaunting a 1974 budget law.

NASA/Joel Kowsky

DOE ends freeze on several ARPA-E grants

UPDATE: Three stalled research projects received word yesterday from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that the department has ended its undeclared freeze on processing approved grants. The department “is honoring commitments to several previously selected Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E] awardees,” declared an 18 May DOE press release, which notes that “additional awardees are expected to move forward in the coming weeks.” The two REFUEL projects and one NEXTCAR project, which total $11 million, were announced last fall. But their funding languished as DOE measured all awards against what it calls the “new Administration’s policy directives.”

A senior Democratic legislator who has questioned the legality of the contracting freeze said yesterday that she’s still keeping an eye on the department. “While this is a step in the right direction,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, “I still have serious concerns given that at least 20 additional competitively selected awardees are still awaiting notice that contract negotiations with ARPA-E can resume.”

Here is our previous story, published on 8 May:

Call it "congressional watchdog bites executive man."

The top Democrat on the science committee for the House has asked the head of the Government Accountability Office to sue DOE for not processing research awards worth tens of millions of dollars made by its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

In a letter sent today to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) asserts that DOE’s actions violate a 1974 law that requires federal agencies to spend the money Congress has given it. Johnson’s immediate concern is more than a dozen projects in four ARPA-E programs for which DOE has not delivered the money it promised when announcing the awards.

Contract negotiations on those awards, some going back to last November, were abruptly halted last month. At the same time, DOE imposed a gag order on ARPA-E program managers that has prevented them from updating researchers on the status of their awards. The limbo has spread angst across the scientific community, from the owners of small companies worrying about the fate of their enterprise to graduate students wondering about their future.

On 26 April Johnson wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry asking him to clarify the status of these and other awards and reminding him of the agency’s legal obligations. She requested a reply by 3 May.

On 4 May DOE released a statement that some media have suggested ends the freeze and gag orders, actions that were never formally announced. The statement says the department “will honor all commitments for funds previously obligated for grants and cooperative agreements.”

But Johnson doesn’t think anything has really changed. “That’s not a sufficient response to our letter,” says a Democratic staffer familiar with the issue. “It’s still a big problem, and everything is not OK.” Johnson’s first letter estimated that “upwards of $40 million in FY2016 monies remain unobligated despite project awardees having already been selected and in many cases publicly announced.”

DOE’s statement says the department is entering “a new era of careful oversight over how and where it spends taxpayer money appropriated to the agency by Congress.” That guidance is coming directly from the White House, according to a 4 May memo to department heads from Brian McCormack, Perry’s chief of staff, which ScienceInsider has obtained.

“The President’s FY2018 budget blueprint provides direction on Administration priorities,” McCormack tells DOE senior managers. “Accordingly, we need to ensure that our financial assistance programs are consistent with Administration direction.”

Johnson’s letter to Dodaro asks him to exercise his authority under a 1974 law that gives him the authority to file a civil suit forcing an agency to spend what it’s been allocated. The law gives the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia the ability to take any steps “which may be necessary or appropriate to make such budget authority available for obligation.” It was enacted after former President Richard Nixon had balked at spending $12 billion appropriated by a Democratic Congress. Nixon cited the need to halt an inflationary spiral triggered by fears of a growing budget deficit as his rationale.

“I ask that you look into these allegations with all due haste and take whatever steps you feel are necessary to ensure Executive compliance with Congressional direction,” Johnson writes.