Feinstein Ready to Pay for Radios Now

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:24pm

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is hoping to pay for a new Capitol Police radio system in an upcoming emergency supplemental, despite House appropriators’ concerns over the department’s plan.

“I believe this should be a key priority for the department, and I believe we need to get it done,” Feinstein said at a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which she chairs. “We simply cannot be in a position where we don’t have the capability for interoperable and secure communications if anything terrible were to happen.”

The Capitol Police desperately need an upgrade to their radio system, which is decades old and can’t communicate with federal and local agencies. The radios also go dead in certain areas of the Capitol — a big problem in an attack or even on a day-to-day basis.

But how to replace those radios has been a subject of controversy. Some Members want it done as soon as possible, no matter the cost. They argue that it is unacceptable that seven years after Sept. 11, 2001, the department is still crippled by an insufficient system.

But others worry that in the hurry to get the radios replaced, money could be wasted. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the top legislative branch appropriator in the House, recently questioned the rising price tag of the radios — a price she said had ballooned from about $35 million to some $70 million.

Last month, she launched an investigation into how the department came up with the $70 million estimate. Until that is completed, the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch is holding off releasing the $10 million already set aside for radio improvements.

But Feinstein announced Wednesday that she would work with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who heads the legislative branch appropriations subcommittee, to get the necessary funding into an emergency supplemental. She will most likely ask for the full funding, or about $65 million, spokesman Howard Gantman said.

The supplemental is expected to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee next week, he said. Landrieu was unavailable at press time to comment on the plan, but in the past, she has voiced her support for getting the radios replaced as soon as possible.

Police officials plan to open the bidding process for a contractor to build the radio system sometime in the fall. They expect to have a draft of the bid by July 29, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Ideally, the money for the radios would be set aside soon so the department can immediately pay for each step of the process as it comes along, Assistant Police Chief Daniel Nichols said.

Of course, no money can be secured without the OK of House appropriators.

Wasserman Schultz will “review the proposal” from Feinstein, her spokesman, Jonathan Beeton, said. But at this point, she plans to wait until the investigation is done before approving funds for new radios.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Feinstein also questioned police officials on allegations that morale is low within the department.

Many of those claims have come from the Capitol Police Labor Committee, a union that has about 900 members.

Union officials recently wrote and distributed a survey, which found that 89 percent of the 300 officers who answered the survey thought that the relationship between management and members of the department has become “adversarial, reducing trust and communications between officers and management.”

Labor Committee Chairman Matt Tighe told Members that officers feel like they are kept out of the loop. And a GAO expert suggested that Morse’s different management style, the unprecedented growth of the department and a little bit of miscommunication might be adding to any morale issues.

Feinstein called such comments “serious.”

“Hopefully, we can urge the chief and leadership to take steps to change this,” Feinstein said. “We don’t want an adversarial relationship. We want the chief to lead, and we want the rank and file to follow.”

Morse and Tighe promised to meet and discuss ways to open up communication between Morse and the officers. After the hearing, Morse said some improvements might need to be made to keep officers informed about department changes.

But Morse also challenged the idea that low morale permeates the department. He pointed to a recent event when he had to order 600 officers to come to work on their day off. Not one, he said, called in sick.

Capitol Police officers are dedicated to their jobs, he said, and it’s his job to improve the department.

“It isn’t about me. It’s about this institution,” he said. “I don’t sit around and think about how I am being portrayed.”