Emergency CAO Truck a Big Hit in Louisiana, Texas

But Some Question Capitol Police Escort

Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:39pm

Last month, Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard deployed a multimillion-dollar communications truck to help House district offices get up and running after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit Louisiana and Texas.

The House Emergency Response Communications Vehicle was a resounding success in the districts, providing more than 200 laptops and phones for constituents to file Federal Emergency Management Agency claims or call relatives.

But some Republican staffers argue that the two Capitol Police officers who escorted the vehicle and CAO staffers to Texas were there in violation of House rules.

Police, they say, violated a 2005 provision that requires the department to first get approval from the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

“This should have been cleared through the Appropriations Committee,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). “We would expect that it would, given that a law requires it.”

The Capitol Police kept silent on the issue; spokeswoman Sgt. Contricia Sellers said the department does not comment on operational issues.

But an e-mail sent to appropriators and obtained by Roll Call points out that the statute provides an exemption for “responding to an imminent threat or emergency.”

Who declares that emergency is uncertain. In this case, Beard decided the hurricanes constituted an emergency and consequently sent seven staffers and the vehicle on a three-week journey.

It’s the first time the vehicle has been used since it was purchased in 2003 as a safeguard to keep Congress running in an emergency.

The truck is designed to provide Members with satellite communications for Internet and telephone in cases when the normal power grid is not available.

The decision to send the officers was made on Sept. 12, the e-mail reads, and the officers and an unmarked vehicle left on Sunday, Sept. 14. Hurricane Ike hit on Sept. 13.

Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), said the committee isn’t questioning the Capitol Police’s decision.

“It is not our intention to be second guessing decisions in an emergency situation,” he said. “We just want to be kept informed of expected costs as a result of these extraordinary circumstances.”

On Wednesday, CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura declined to answer questions about the vehicles’ exact price tag, their specific capabilities or the number of vehicles owned by the House — although he did refer to “vehicles” in the plural — citing that information as part of the “umbrella of security.”

But he was eager to point out the vehicle’s positive impact on the districts. In Texas, seven Members came together in the one office set up by the CAO, helping a total of 6,000 constituents use the Internet and phones.

It’s unclear if there is a protocol for when and how the vehicles should be used. Ventura said the CAO has a loose “playbook,” but that the office had to respond day-to-day.

In Baton Rouge, La., for example, Rep. Don Cazayoux’s (D) district office regained power less than 24 hours after the vehicle arrived. But the CAO staff stayed a few days longer at the district office and used the equipment to instead serve area residents.

Ventura said that it is mostly up to Members when the vehicle is used, and he noted that in emergencies, Members’ offices need to be able to handle the constituents coming to them for help.

“Most turn to their Congressman for guidance on what to do,” he said. “You can’t have a district office shuttered, with a sign that says, ‘Sorry, no power.’ That’s unacceptable.”

The CAO’s office has written a report detailing the trip and will study the lessons learned, Ventura said.

The price tag for the trip is not yet known, he said, but only includes food, gas and “cheap hotels” for the CAO staffers who went.

The seven Texas Members — Reps. Ted Poe (R), Kevin Brady (R), Al Green (D), Sheila Jackson Lee (D), Nick Lampson (D), Gene Green (D) and Ron Paul (R) — sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) a letter of thanks.

“The CAO’s Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery team made it possible for our staffs to lend a helping hand to our constituents, to listen to them, and help them navigate FEMA’s red tape,” the letter reads. “The BC/DR team helped us give our constituents a means to call loved ones just to say, ‘I am okay; we’re safe.’”