Sergeant-at-Arms Staff Sees Bigger Workload

Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:43pm

Senate officials are asking appropriators for a $15 million budget increase to handle an increasing number of computer security threats and an uptick in services for Members and their offices.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer told Members last week that his staff has been inundated with requests and duties for Senate offices. In 2009 alone, the office tested 20 million pieces of mail, digitized 1.4 million pages of constituent mail responses and made more than 8,000 diagrams and posters for Members to use on the Senate floor.

This year, the office will require almost $224 million to stay afloat, and Gainer wants $239 million for fiscal 2011. But he has also offered appropriators the option of giving his office no budget increase at all — if Members are willing to risk longer wait times and more limited services.

“Do you want us to sustain a process and do the same thing, or do you want us to upgrade it and prepare it for the future?” Gainer said at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “Same old, same old? Or take the chance to do it the right way?”

Gainer’s office handles many of the behind-the-scenes duties that keep Senate offices running. Mail, phone calls, e-mails, computer systems — it all is touched at some point by an SAA employee. As technology improves, so does the option for better services, and it all costs money.

For example, Congressional offices are currently using a telephone system that was built to handle only 182 simultaneous voice mails. Calls to Members, however, can reach more than 100,000 an hour. In the middle of the health care reform debate last year, Congress received a record 755,000 calls in one day, causing busy signals and dropped calls.

The SAA office is now in the middle of a project to replace the entire system with one that can handle such surges in calls. So far, Congress has appropriated $20 million for the system’s design and implementation, and Gainer estimates that it will cost $3.5 million to $8.7 million more.

Making those posters for the Senate floor costs money as well: The Printing, Graphics and Direct Mail division is struggling in its small office in Post Office Square on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast. In the past year, it has been flooded with raw sewage twice, and pieces of the ceiling have fallen down. Gainer wants to move the division to Maryland, investing an up-front cost totaling about $18 million.

But last week, Senate appropriators made it clear that they were hoping to give the legislative branch no increase at all.

“I’m very concerned that the subcommittee has once again been presented with a very large budget request. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we really need to reduce these numbers,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “I’m going to do everything I can to hold the legislative branch flat this year.”

Still, Congress is unlikely to deny at least one of Gainer’s requests. Next year, he hopes to improve the Senate’s computer security system, which is tested every year by an ever-increasing number of cyber-attacks.

In 2009, SAA officials handled an average of 1.6 billion “network security events” per month — or 200 times the average 8 million events in 2008. So far this year, the average has climbed to 1.8 billion.

Such events run the gamut of security, ranging from the potentially dangerous viruses and Trojan horses to the less threatening adware (a program that automatically plays advertisements). But the Senate receives about 18 “spear phishing” attacks per month, where staffers are sent e-mails with “malicious” attachments or links. Between August and December, about four were successful each month.

At last week’s hearing — convened to discuss fiscal 2011 budget requests — Gainer requested $1 million to beef up the information technology system to fight back against such attacks.

“The amount of people trying to get to us is increasing,” he said. “It’s a continuing, constant threat. … Our adversaries are playing chess with us.”