Library IG’s Gun Authority Livens a Budget Hearing

Posted March 5, 2008 at 6:23pm

Steal from the Library of Congress and you could face the gun-wielding power of the agency’s inspector general office.

The office is known primarily for its audits of the agency’s financial and operational functions. But it also has a criminal investigation arm — and the guns to go with it.

It’s not a new authority, but Members briefly diverged from the standard mathematical back-and-forth at a budget hearing on Wednesday to discuss a more provocative issue. The entire situation, it seems, was news to the members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

“I have a real concern here that we have a separation of powers issue,” said ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who cited the fact that IG employees are trained and deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service, a branch of the Department of Justice. “You’re basically under the control of the executive branch.”

But the Library isn’t the only agency that keeps guns in its IG office, nor is it the only one that exercises its weapons authority through the Justice Department.

Library Inspector General Karl Schornagel estimated that about 30 executive branch offices do the same. The National Archives is one of them; Ross Weiland, assistant inspector general for investigations there, said the authority to carry guns is essential to carrying out searches and arrests.

Still, the Library is the only agency within the legislative branch to have its gun-toting authority derive from U.S. Marshals Service. The authority to carry guns also is not spelled out in a statute, a situation shared with dozens of other IG offices that keep guns. All of this worries Latham.

At the hearing, Schornagel contended that the whole situation was reviewed last year and approved by senior staffers on both the House and Senate Appropriations committees. The office has exercised its gun-handling authority for 10 years.

In just the past two months, the Library’s IG office has executed two search warrants and one arrest, Schornagel said in an interview. None could have been completed without the precaution of carrying a gun, he said. And waiting for help from local law enforcement can mean losing the trail.

“I just hope people can appreciate why we need them,” he said. “A gun on the hip talks. … If you were searching a house and if you weren’t wearing a gun, someone might challenge you. Those are differences that wearing a gun makes. It’s a big communicator.”

A clearly annoyed Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) promised to look into the issue, which she said had not been brought to her attention before the hearing.

She also managed to push the hearing back to its primary focus: what the Library needs and how much the committee could fund those needs.

At the top of the list was the National Digital Information and Infrastructure Preservation Program. Founded in 2001, the program aims to preserve the fleeting and intangible information on the Internet and in the digital world. But with recent funding for the Library at a bare-bones level, the program has slowed significantly.

Librarian of Congress James Billington asked for Congress to sustain it with $6 million — the main focus of a budget request he called “very modest.” While agencies usually come to the table with a ballooned “wish list,” the Library began talks with a request for only a 5.3 percent increase over 2008’s budget.

“We respect the understandable desire of the Congress for austerity in this year’s budget,” Billington said in his opening statement. “But I feel obligated to say that if we are stretched much farther, we may soon reach a breaking point.”

Keeping staff employed and maintaining operations take up much of the Library’s request, which totals about $646 million. The money for the digital initiative is one of the few program requests. While it is a private-public effort, Billington stressed that the lack of full Congressional funding has left it crippled, delaying projects and milestones expected by private contributors. And with each year, he said, more digital information is lost forever.

In response to the limited budgets of years past, the Library has come up with a five-year plan. With Congress’ help, Billington said, the agency hopes to increase its preservation tenfold to 650 terabytes of storage, or the equivalent of about 650 million books.

Wasserman Schultz voiced her support for the program and her desire to keep it afloat. If the program collapses, she said, information will “just disappear.”

During the two-hour hearing, the conversation was repeatedly steered back to the Library’s “talking books” program, which provides about 800,000 blind and physically handicapped people with audiobooks. The current cassettes, which are outdated and aging, need to be replaced with digital equipment. To solve this, the committee and Library officials came to an agreement last year: a six-year transition, funded at $12.5 million a year.

Blind advocates, however, argue that the switchover needs to be done in four years because the cassette equipment is rapidly becoming unusable. Wasserman Schultz and others say that the budget is tight, and concessions have to be made to keep the Library running.

But not for the blind, noted Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who at one point gave a speech about his intention to be the “one Member who is going to try and find the money to do it in four years.” The transition, he said, “ought to be a priority to Congress.”

LaHood’s words quickly turned into a heated argument when Wasserman Schultz responded that other programs also need to be considered and suggested LaHood talk to President Bush about his budget constraints.

She also noted that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped received a 25 percent budget hike in the 2008 budget.

“If you don’t see this as a priority, then I’m putting you on notice,” LaHood said. “If you can’t have it our way, you don’t want it anybody’s way.”

Throughout the hearing, Wasserman Schultz reiterated her priorities: spreading a tight budget throughout the Library’s programs and functions. Another worry of the Library, for example, is getting enough funding to keep open its oversees offices, which provide the Library with international artifacts.