The Secret Service is always busy in election years, but the 2016 presidential race could pose a bigger challenge than usual for the agency in charge of guarding candidates vying for their party’s nomination. There are four under Secret Service protection already, and the pack could grow.
Last week, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., a candidate for the Democratic nomination, became the fourth presidential hopeful with a Secret Service detail. Sanders joins Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Democrat Hillary Clinton under the agency’s watch.
It's not cheap. In 2008, Mark Sullivan, director of the Secret Service at the time, estimated that the cost of protecting a single candidate for one day – a metric the agency labels as “protection days” – was roughly $38,000. That included the cost of travel, per diem, hotels and overtime pay.
This year's group of protected candidates is likely to expand as primary voters take to the polls in New Hampshire on Tuesday and more states in the coming weeks. Republican candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida could be added if they continue to do well, or other contenders if they begin to surge.
That could mean additional hassles for an agency that’s already been spread thin in recent years.
“That could be an issue,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, which controls Secret Service funding. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”
An oversight panel set up in 2014 after a series of security lapses found that the recent failures stemmed from a lack of resources and proper training, among other factors. Appropriators set out to address some of those shortfalls, and the Service received $1.93 billion under the omnibus passed by Congress in December (PL 114-113) for the remainder of fiscal 2016 – a raise of $268 million compared to the fiscal 2015 enacted level.
Most of that new funding went to candidate protection operations, which received $204 million. That was the exact amount requested by the administration and $178 million higher than the fiscal 2015 allocation.
The agency got what it asked for in terms of funding, but that doesn’t mean money and manpower won’t be stretched if the primary races remain unsettled for months.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told lawmakers early last year that inadequate funding “in the midst of a presidential election cycle with a lot of people who are running . . . that's going to be a real crunch.”
Secret Service officials would not comment on their candidate protection plans and it's unclear if the agency could have predicted the number of candidates who may yet require protection. Rubio and Cruz would bring the total to six, if none of the other candidates under the agency’s watch drop out of the race.
In 2012, four candidates received Secret Service protection: Republicans Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and eventual nominee Mitt Romney. The agency spent a total of $125 million for candidate protection spread out over three fiscal years.
The 2008 presidential campaign was the last election in which the nominations for both parties were contested, and the agency spent a total of $170 million to guard candidates from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2009.
The 2008 election featured just three presidential candidates under the agency’s watch, though one of them posed an unusual challenge: then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who received a personal detail very early, in May 2007. That was the earliest protection awarded to any candidate in history, a full 18 months ahead of the November 2008 election.
At the time, lawmakers and agency officials characterized the demands of that election as unprecedented. But the agency will outpace the total budget for protecting candidates for that entire election in fiscal 2016 alone.
It’s also possible appropriators would have to grant the agency permission to shift resources around in fiscal 2016 – or else provide extra dollars in fiscal 2017 if there’s any shortfall this year.
It’s happened before. Candidate protection received $41 million in fiscal 2009, which started in October 2008, for the last months of the campaign and the period between the election and the inauguration in January 2009. But the unusual demands of that election year ended up forcing the agency to spend $5 million more than intended.
“We also have the ability to move dollars around within certain accounts, if needed,” Hoeven said. “So we’ll try to anticipate what they need funded. If for some reason that is short, we’ll be able to move dollars from another account within DHS into that account.”
“We’ll make sure it’s covered,” he added.
The president is expected to unveil his fiscal 2017 budget request on Tuesday.