Radio Static

Posted June 17, 2008 at 1:50pm

We sympathize with the dismay that House appropriators have expressed over the sudden doubling of the cost to replace obsolete radios for the Capitol Police. But we still hope that the project can get started while the cost increase is investigated.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, police and fire departments all over the country have been working to make sure they can communicate with one another and with federal authorities. The Capitol Police, with arguably one of the nation’s top homeland security roles to perform, is far behind the curve.

Their old-fashioned analog radios are incompatible with modern, digital systems and can’t connect with other departments. They frequently go dead in certain areas of the Capitol. And all their communications can be picked up on simple radio scanners. In other words, most Capitol Police officers are in nearly the same fix as they were on 9/11.

At long last, the situation was supposed to start changing this year with police submission of an “obligation plan” for spending $10 million previously appropriated for the radio system and the infrastructure to house it. The plan needs to be approved by the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

The Senate is in bipartisan, full-speed-ahead mode, but last week House appropriators balked at the recent doubling of the estimated price from $35 million to $70 million. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, told Roll Call that she was dissatisfied with a briefing by Police Chief Phillip Morse, who, she said, gave a PowerPoint presentation with “no backup, no information. It was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it type of project where there were no alternatives.”

Wasserman Schultz, with the backing of her panel’s ranking member, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), refused to approve obligating the $10 million pending an investigation of the cost increase. “I’m just not willing to move forward with a very expensive radio plan when we’ve already been down that road on other government projects,” she said. She cited Government Accountability Office studies showing that the police “have a horrendous track record” of administrative and fiscal failings that have only begun to improve.

Wasserman Schultz is scheduled to meet again today with Morse, and another hearing is pending in the House Administration Subcommittee on Capitol Security. Evidently Morse has been able to satisfy Senate appropriators with his plans to proceed, and perhaps he can do the same in the House.

An alternative process was suggested by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol Police. “We should push ahead, and the second-guessing can continue.” He said that, without further delays, it will take three years for the new radio system to be up and running. That will be 10 years after 9/11.