Ongoing budget cutbacks could affect congressional security

Amid a period of ongoing budget austerity, the Senate sergeant at arms has requested a funding increase in fiscal 2013. The office is seeking $205 million, an increase of $1.7 million over FY12.

According to Gainer, $1.2 million of that requested increase would go to lawmakers’ state office security programs.

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“The tragic shooting of [Arizona] Congresswoman [Gabrielle] Giffords and the recent white powder letter episode ... are just two examples of why the need for this extra security is so important,” he told the subcommittee.

The Senate Sergeant at Arms’s budget had already taken a nearly 7 percent hit in FY12, a loss that has since been absorbed. But, noted Gainer, continuing to cut funding might not be sustainable.

“Continued reductions in our budget will eventually have an adverse impact on the way we support our customers,” he said. “We’d have to reduce our services, scale back allocations, reduce our subsidies for some services and defer the critical improvements that are required to keep pace with continued demands of improved technology.”

When asked by subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) if the incidents in late February, in which envelopes of suspicious white powder sent to several lawmakers’ district and Washington, D.C., offices, had increased their workload, Gainer said yes.

“The offices are much more sensitive now ... to being mindful of threatening calls, of threatening emails, of threatening letters,” he testified. “That has increased the workload a bit.”

Gainer’s office was not alone in asking for more money as federal budgets continue to shrink. Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse told the subcommittee his department would need a 10 percent funding increase over FY12 levels, for a total of $373.8 million.

Some of the extra funding would go toward overtime for officers — required for the upcoming presidential inauguration — as well as 17 additional full-time positions.

When asked what effect his department and lawmakers could expect if the Capitol Police’s budget were frozen, Morse was not optimistic.

“If we were to freeze, what we would do is [go] back to deferring lifecycle replacement, deferring training,” he said. “At this time, anything we do is going to [degrade] or impact security or the operations of Congress because we would have to pick between security and operations.”

“We are at the bare bone at this time,” Morse concluded, noting that significant budget cuts could mean personnel, security program or operational cuts.

The secretary of the Senate’s office appeared to be making do with less, given its FY13 budget request — $30 million — was on par with what the office was awarded in FY12. But they, too, would not be immune from the negative impact of potential budget cuts.

According to Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson, her office’s budget had remained flat in FY08 through FY11 despite new statutory mandates that increased demands.

But, she added, “my staff has projected that the overall cost of providing the current mix of research services to the Senate through 2016 could escalate at a rate as much as 2.8 percent per year.”

“Our staff is spread extremely thin,” Erickson told appropriators.