GAO: Trump Admin’s attempts to undermine ARPA-E were illegal

When Congress allocates money for federal programs, the president is not forbidden by the 1974 Impoundment Control Act (ICA) from withholding those funds.

The ICA was passed to keep the Executive Branch from starving programs Congress funded simply because he or she didn’t agree with them. A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Trump Administration tried to do just that earlier this year with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

A sub-agency under the purview of the Department of Energy (DOE), ARPA-E focuses on developing new and innovative energy technologies. Despite Congress allocating $91 million to fund the agency for the current fiscal year, the GAO report says Trump had planned on canceling half the money and using the other half to completely shut the program down.

The actions were in direct opposition to the purpose Congress designated the money for, which brought the Administration into conflict with the ICA, the GAO said.

It should be noted that the Administration finally released the funds on November 29, only after repeated nagging from the GAO and the intervention of the DOE’s Office of the General Counsel, which demanded the funds be released.

The GAO investigation started when it was asked in September why the funds hadn’t been allocated yet (it’s not clear who made the initial inquiry), at which point the GAO General Counsel Thomas A. Armstrong asked ARPA-E officials to account for the funds.

ARPA-E officials told Armstrong that the DOE had ordered them to withhold the funds until Congress had passed legislation allowing them to implement Trump’s plan to close the agency entirely.

Trump’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defended withholding the funds, saying the budget proposal was not subject to Title X of the Congressional Budget Act and the ICA, claims the GAO report says are not in accordance with the law and with OMB’s position on other similar cases in the past.

“Agencies may only withhold budget authority from obligation if the President has transmitted a special message to Congress,” Armstrong wrote in the report. “ARPA-E withheld the obligation of $91 million without the President transmitting a special message to Congress. Accordingly, ARPA-E violated the Impoundment Control Act.”

Since the funds have now been released to the agency, the GAO is not transmitting a formal report to Congress detailing the ICA violations that occurred, although its report has been transmitted to the appropriate Congressional committees.

Shortly after the GAO released its report, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced new funding up to $100 million for its latest OPEN program, which will support researchers in the early stages of exploring novel approaches to energy innovation across the full spectrum of energy applications.

The last OPEN solicitation occurred in 2015, in keeping with its habit of soliciting new projects every three years, a pattern set after its first solicitation in 2009.