The United States Capitol Police may be the biggest, fastest growing and most far-reaching law enforcement agency the public knows almost nothing about.
The size of the force has almost doubled in the past 25 years, to nearly 2,300, bigger than the municipal police departments in Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans or Denver. The budget has grown far, far faster — ballooning almost six times over since the early 1990s. Even adjusted for inflation, it’s nearly quadrupled.
Spending by the Capitol Police is topping $375 million this year on a mission that’s confined to protecting Capitol Hill, its workforce of about 25,000, the surrounding neighborhood and lawmakers wherever they go across the country. That’s more than Seattle spends on a police department assigned to protect 620,000 people.
Yet congressional security operates, and expands, almost entirely in the background — with concerted oversight from only a handful of lawmakers, little detail released on spending and a constant effort by the Capitol Police to maintain as low a public profile as possible.
That wasn’t possible last week, when a man was shot by police after drawing a weapon at the Capitol complex’s main tourist entrance. The force won bipartisan praise for its quick response, a likely predictor that another significant bump in its budget is in the offing.
“Each time there’s a high-profile incident, that quickly becomes an opportunity for the police to press for even more. And they usually get it, because you have to push pretty hard to get Congress interested in asking any tough questions about the folks in uniform keeping them safe,” says James P. Moran, who became a lobbyist in 2015 after 24 years as a Virginia congressman in which he was the top Democrat on the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee for most of the previous decade. “There’s every reason to believe that’s what’s going to play out again now.”
Says Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who’s also a lobbyist served as chairman of the same panel a decade ago: “Members aren’t re-elected based on what they do with the Capitol Police, so very rarely do very many of them do any homework on it.”
That could benefit the police at an opportune time. This spring, Matthew Verderosa took the reins as the fourth chief in the past decade of a force beleaguered by low morale and bad press — just as the department is seeking a 9 percent budget increase, the biggest annual boost in a decade.
Congress will be considering that request during a campaign season when political pressures could pull both ways. On the one hand, the Islamic State’s recent attacks on Brussels and Paris, on top of the recent shooting incident, will reinforce public support for spending what it takes to protect institutions of American democracy. At the same time, Congress’ dismal approval ratings will press lawmakers to demonstrate their self-restraint with their own overhead.
“It’s a different mission than a city police force, because they’re protecting one of the most symbolically important workplaces in the world, so they’re entitled to some special dispensation,” says Rep. Mark Amodei, a Nevada Republican in his third year on the appropriations panel that directs the police budget. “The question is, how much more is enough?”
Longest Aftershock of 9/11 Lawmakers familiar with this push and pull from previous years predict the force will make out fine.
Ever since the September 20o1 terrorist attack, "there’s been a constant bipartisan urgency that we’re not as secure as we need to be, and that mindset is hard to retreat from,” says Zach Wamp, a government affairs consultant based in Tennessee who was from 2007 through 2010 Kingston’s successor as the top GOP House member on Legislative Branch Appropriations. “You could call the steady growth of the police budget one of the longest aftershocks of Sept. 11.”
If it were a municipal force, the Capitol Police would now be among the two dozen biggest in the nation, by employees as well as budget. And yet, only a negligible amount of detail gets released about how officers are deployed or their caches of high-tech equipment.
That’s more than a consequence of the opaque nature of the budget process. It also stems from Congress’ decision to exempt the Capitol Police from the standards of openness that apply at every other local police precinct, county sheriff’s office or state police barracks in the country.
For more than two decades there’s been a single, seemingly unassailable rationale for the extraordinary secrecy: It's the best way to keep the legislative branch safe so its deliberations can be transparent.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving, the chairman of the police’s three-member oversight board, and Dominic Storelli, the police chief of staff, declined requests to discuss the budget details.
Members and former members who have been charged with overseeing and budgeting for the police say that, as with so many executive branch agencies, the police are rarely forthcoming about the details unless lawmakers know precisely what questions to ask.
The police are consuming $1 out of every $12 that Congress is spending on itself and its support agencies in fiscal 2016. In the first half of the 1990s, the ratio was $1 in $35. (In fiscal 1993, for example, the police budget was $65 million, which would be $110 million in today’s dollars.)
Back then, 96 percent of the appropriation routinely went to pay and provide benefits to about 1,300 officers and their support staff. Now, only four-fifths of the budget is for payroll — but that still works out to an average of $136,000 expense for each of the 1,800 or so in uniform and more than 400 civilian employees. (It would be more except that Congress has capped overtime at 10 percent of personnel spending, or $31 million this year.)
The Capitol Police manifest is about 20 percent bigger than that of Cleveland, which is preparing to host an unusually contentious Republican National Convention in July.
Body Scanners and Bomb-Sniffing Dogs The budget portion not allocated to pay and benefits — $66 million — is almost all for hardware that’s described only in the vaguest terms: armored trucks, patrol cars, bicycles, rifles, pistols, ammunition, uniforms, communications hardware, forensics gear, security screening equipment (a full body scanner costs at least $150,000) and the care and feeding of 50 bomb-sniffing dogs.
The overhead budget also includes travel. Security details are assigned to stay with top members of the leadership at all times, and officers may be deployed across the country to protect and investigate threats against rank-and-file members and their families. There is no break down for how much of the budget goes for travel or how much that has increased over the years.
The steel barricades embedded in the roads, concrete bollards doubling as planters, bulletproof windows, heavy steel doors and other fixed security enhancements to the Hill campus are paid for by the Architect of the Capitol — to the tune of another $25 million this year. Basic training for new officers, including the four dozen additional hires authorized this year, comes courtesy of the Homeland Security Department.
The Capitol Police force was created to replace a solitary civilian watchman in 1828 after a son of John Quincy Adams was assaulted in the Rotunda. Officers were patronage appointees until 50 years ago -- Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid moonlighted as an officer to help pay for law school – and have been unionized for only two decades.
The rapid expansion of the modern era began in 1998. Congress boosted the force by 260, enough to station at least two at each public entrance, after the first Capitol Police in history were killed in the line of duty.
Russell Eugene Weston Jr., circumvented the X-ray machine at a Capitol tourist entrance and shot J.J. Chestnut, the lone patrolman at that checkpoint on a Friday afternoon in July, and then detective John Gibson in a nearby House leadership office. Weston was ruled mentally unfit for trial and is being held indefinitely at a federal prison psychiatric hospital in North Carolina.
Budget Challenges Ahead The 35 percent boost in the three years before the 9/11 attacks seems like a rounding error relative to the more than doubling of the budget just in the two years after hijacked United Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania minutes from the Capitol, its likeliest terrorist target.
At the time of the 2001 al Qaeda attacks, the force’s budget was $104 million. In the fall of 2003, the police were given $240 million to spend in the coming fiscal year, enough to bring more than 200 additional officers on board and give the force a 9 percent pay raise (double what the rest of the federal workforce got that year) and new education benefits in hope of improving retention.
The rest of that decade saw relatively generous and steady additional growth, much of it justified for policing the new Capitol Visitor Center, despite persistent skepticism and occasional criticism from Congress. Its oversight arm, the Government Accountability Office, at one point was monitoring 46 different shortcomings it had found with the force’s efforts to match spending with the clearest threats, control costs, improve morale and modernize technology.
Another GAO report questioned why Capitol Police pay and benefits is so much better than other federal police forces in the Washington area. Today's starting salary is $55,600, or 10 percent more than what's paid to a D.C. region newcomer of the U.S. Park Police.
The budget remained almost flat during the first half of this decade, growing a below-inflation 2 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015, but even that was a victory of sorts. The force held even at a time when newly ascendant tea party Republicans succeeded in shrinking overall legislative branch spending by 6 percent.
Remarkably, the force overcame that stasis and secured an 8 percent increase for the current year — with the mandate that commanders get ahead of the curve on identifying the next generation of high-tech threats to the Capitol — even though the budget deliberations happened during a series of incidents that generated a wave of embarrassing publicity for the agency.
At this early point in the budget season, the revived fight over spending between the pragmatists and budget hawks in the House GOP may be enough to prevent the Capitol Police from getting the $35 million increase it’s seeking for the fiscal year beginning in October.
Raised Eyebrows Even if that budget standoff gets defused, the force looks unlikely to get all the money, especially because lawmakers have raised eyebrows at both proposed big-ticket security upgrades: Magnetometers to screen staffers entering the three House office buildings through their garages, and full body scanners for many of the public entrances.
“There’s the got-to-haves and the nice-to-haves,” Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the top House Democrat on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, observed at a recent hearing where she outlined her objections to buying all that hardware. “I have seen many, many bells and whistles that are available to Capitol Police.”
Nevada’s Amodei summarizes the dynamic this way: “You can’t just give them whatever they want, but you don’t want to be the guy who cut them back and then something went wrong.”
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