If budget resolutions are aspirational, sketching the big picture Congress envisions for government, then spending bills are the polar opposite: Blueprints that lawmakers micromanage down to the smallest line item.
As arguments began over budgetary targets measured in multiples of billions, another annual ritual climaxed elsewhere on the Hill last week: Appropriations subcommittees were picking nits measured in the low-end millions (sometimes less) at 30 different hearings. A dozen more are planned before spring recess starts at the end of this week.
The sessions are supposed to be pure fact-finding, but in reality they’re about something else this spring. That's a predicate for the now all-Republican Congress to go further than at any time in the previous six years to make detailed decisions contradicting the spending President Barack Obama wants.
Which brings us to this guidance: Keep your eye on the fate of the fake White House.
The Secret Service wants $8 million to create an ersatz executive mansion, the better to train its agents and officers in presidential protection. If Congress provides the money, it will be a signal of bipartisan belief the agency is getting its act together — and also a sign the GOP is avoiding the temptation of making granular spending cuts based entirely on their headline-grabbing appeal.
In other words, the project doesn’t stand a great chance of surviving. That’s only partly because dissatisfaction with the Secret Service is among the precious few things about which there’s bipartisan agreement these days. Mainly, it’s because Republicans are itching to poke at Obama almost every chance they get — and trying to make a mockery of the White House mockup may prove impossible for them to resist.
Every year, lawmakers hone in on a handful of relatively small-beer items that pack a decent symbolic punch, hoping to convince constituents of their fiscal prudence by excising a couple of million dollars in easy-to-understand spending from a budget that’s a tough-to-comprehend six orders of magnitude bigger. When such a program or project gets targeted, its merits quickly become beside the point.
So this point in the process — well before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee releases its draft of legislation to fund that sprawling department in fiscal 2016 — may be the best time to appreciate the arguments in favor of constructing a phony White House complex just 20 miles from the real thing. Since an agency as beleaguered as the Secret Service is pursuing the money with a straight face before a chorus of already raised eyebrows on the Hill, it’s a rebuttable presumption there’s some merit to the idea.
The reasoning is not quite as many cynics describe: Having so clearly revealed recently that it’s not up to protecting the real thing, the Secret Service is hoping to do better with a forgery.
The actual rationale is a more sober take on the same concept. Training, then training some more, is the best way for law enforcement agents to get ready for the incredible tensions and minimally predictable situations they must confront. The more realistic the simulations, the better. And, since it would be pretty unsettling for agents and their dogs to stage exercises at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (the public, staff and first family might all get freaked out), a mockup is the next best thing.
“Right now, we train on a parking lot, basically,” Joseph P. Clancy, the new Secret Service director, said in explaining the proposal to House Appropriations last week. “We put up a makeshift fence and walk off the distance between the fence at the White House and the actual house itself. We don’t have the bushes. We don’t have the fountains. We don’t get a realistic look at the White House.”
That would be rectified at the Secret Service training center by erecting a full-scale model of the residence, the East and West Wings and the surrounding 18 acres. It’s not clear just how detailed the grounds would be replicated or whether the interiors would be copied, because the design hasn’t been made public. (Two months ago a drone crashed, undetected, on the south lawn. Six months ago, an intruder got over the wrought-iron fence, ran across the North Lawn and sprinted through the front door and into the East Room before officers tackled him.)
The 500-acre campus, a wooded compound abutting the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just outside the Beltway in Beltsville, Md., already features a Potemkin Village where agents practice protecting the president in many types of places. Aerial photographs show a pretend strip mall, an urban street-scape that might belong at Universal Studios, a tarmac with mockups of Marine One and the front end of Air Force One, a highway overpass and a tunnel to nowhere — all connected by an elaborate six-mile road network for the practice of defensive driving.
Congress has paid for all that fakery in the past, but the end of the Obama years may well be different. The “new” White House may survive subcommittee, where genuine needs generally triumph over political point-making. But that won’t stop efforts to block it in the full committee, on the House floor and then in the Senate.
To be fair, Democrats have pursued the same sorts of petty punishments for past Republican administrations. One of the classics was in 2001 when Jay Inslee, now the governor of Washington state, demanded a House vote on cutting off federal funds to pay the utility bills at the vice president’s official residence. His amendment, which would have saved all of $134,000, received only 141 votes, but it got enormous coverage as a window into the surging partisan antipathy toward Dick Cheney.
It’s also true that Republican lawmakers are eager to deny themselves anything that might sound frivolous. (Last year, they voted as a bloc to pare back the Capitol Visitor Center’s budget by $243,000.) So don’t expect to hear any talk of constructing a Hill replica for Capitol Police training, either.
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress
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