Alice Rivlin

Natural gas fracking well in Louisiana

When I think of former Senator Pete Domenici, the first thing that pops into my mind is his long-standing, unwavering, and open-checkbooked support for nuclear power.  A 2007 MSNBC article on him called him the "nuclear renaissance man," noting that he has "worked hard to subsidize the nuclear industry." 

Let's ignore the various financial and personal ties Domenici has with the nuclear industry mentioned in the article, and take it on face value that he is a "true believer" in the importance of nuclear energy for the country.  The whole history still makes him a strange and somewhat ironic choice to serve as co-chair of the recently launched Debt Reform Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Center.  After all, isn't Congressional subsidization of favored industries and constituencies one of the main causes of our massive federal debt?  Isn't Domenici's massive push for unprecedented subsidies to nuclear -- a push largely based on belief rather than analysis,  and on personal relationships rather than competitive tender, exactly the things that this task force needs to fix?  In the nuclear arena, in fact, his push for more subsidies has often been through last minute amendments introduced with little visibility; changes aiming to reduce or eliminate existing oversight and constraints to federal spending or risk transfer.  The choice of Domenici for this particular role stands in rather stark contrast to his co-chair Alice Rivlin, who has spent her career evaluating government programs and ways to make them more effective and transparent.   

This critique is not in any way meant to undermine the goals of the Debt Reform Task Force or the many dedicated people they have engaged to participate.  It is certainly possible as well that the former Senator, freed from the political pressures he previously faced, will be able to focus on the structural reforms rather than constituency politics.  My hope is that he does not turn a blind eye to the way his favored issues contribute to the overall debt problem.  Rather, he needs to focus on policy-neutral solutions to boost transparency, tighten rules, and in the process render defunct the tactics he employed so often to boost subsidies to his own favored groups.