After Mistakes, Capitol Police May Lose Budget Control

Posted March 10, 2010 at 6:26pm

House appropriators threatened to strip the Capitol Police of its administrative functions Wednesday because of a recent “miscalculation” that resulted in a $5.5 million budget shortfall.

The department has had several financial missteps since it took over its administrative functions in 2003, earning the criticism of Members and the Government Accountability Office. But the recent shortfall might be the last straw for frustrated lawmakers.

“The grace period is over. I’m done. It is inexcusable to me that we are still experiencing ridiculous financial mismanagement,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said at Wednesday’s hearing on the legislative branch’s fiscal 2011 budget. “Is it time to take financial responsibility from the Capitol Police?”

Capitol Police officials say the shortfall occurred after they neglected to correctly account for such costs as holiday pay, loan repayments and attrition rates. Now Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse must rework the department’s current budget because of the miscalculation — and increase his fiscal 2011 request by about $9 million for a total of $385 million.

That’s “inexcusable” to Wasserman Schultz, who has chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch for three years with an eye for what she calls the “gotta-haves, not the nice-to-haves.” The Capitol Police’s mistake will mean she has to find extra money in an already-tight budget.

“I’m at the point where the legislative branch bill will be removing this responsibility,” she said, later adding: “I would have to be convinced of some other way.”

House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, who is chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said the department has asked the in-house inspector general to write a report on the miscalculation. At Wednesday’s hearing, he stopped short of endorsing Wasserman Schultz’s proposal, which would return the agency’s fiscal responsibilities to the House and Senate.

But Livingood agreed that officials might want to look at potential administrative areas where there are “cross-servicing opportunities” between the Capitol Police and Congress.

In an interview after the hearing, Livingood said he realized the severity of the situation when he first heard of the shortfall from Morse a few weeks ago. Morse has said that he discovered the mistake in his first quarterly review of the agency’s budget.

“I was disappointed,” Livingood said. “The thought that went through my mind is, ‘We have to fix this immediately.'”

Capitol Police officials are now busy cutting from the “general expenses” fund to make up the $5.5 million difference and hope to reassure oversight committees in the coming weeks. But they face bipartisan criticism: Rep. Robert Aderholt (Ala.), the top Republican on the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said in an interview after the hearing that he was open to taking away the department’s administrative arm.

“I want to look at what the [inspector general] report says,” he said. “Certainly, I think we need to look at all options.”

Wednesday’s hearing also focused on some improvements to security. In February, Livingood’s office took over the Office of Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Operations, renaming it the Office of Emergency Management.

The office used to reside under House leadership, a structure that split emergency responsibilities between leadership officials, the House SAA and the Chief Administrative Officer. The fracture of emergency functions has been an ongoing problem, with both the House and Senate splitting responsibilities in-house and between chambers. With the move of the OEPPO to Livingood, however, Members hope to consolidate evacuation training and emergency procedures.

Livingood’s office is also on the cusp of improving the staff identification system. By the 112th Congress, he said, staffers will be able to apply for ID badges online, rather than through the annual tradition of waiting in line. The new badges will also offer “smart card” capabilities in anticipation of an eventual switchover to badges that have memory chips.

Subcommittee members also questioned Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller and CAO Dan Beard on their projects and budgets Wednesday. Topics ranged from House food prices to cell phone reception.

The price of food in the House cafeterias has been an ongoing issue since Restaurant Associates began managing the cafeterias at the end of 2007. House appropriators put language in the fiscal 2010 budget directing Beard to find ways to make meals more affordable for staffers.

Since then, the cafeterias have begun offering one “value meal” each day. But on Wednesday, Wasserman Schultz and subcommittee member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said the prices are still too high for low-paid staffers. They suggested such solutions as offering more value meals to bringing in other companies such as Subway.

“I still think there needs to be a push on Restaurant Associates to provide a wider array of affordable options,” Wasserman Schultz said, calling the current situation “obnoxious.” “I don’t think they’ve gone far enough, especially in these economic times.”

Members also questioned Beard on the spotty BlackBerry service in the Capitol Visitor Center, especially outside the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a room where classified documents are stored and read.

“That hallway is very important for us to be able to communicate,” Ruppersberger said.

But Beard assured Members that his office was working to solve such issues — and has already fixed the spotty reception that recently plagued the Rayburn tunnel.

His office is also in the middle of providing campus-wide wireless access. So far, staffers and visitors can access the Internet in the Longworth cafeteria, and over the next three years Beard plans to install as many as 750 wireless “access points” in Member and committee offices.

Miller, meanwhile, updated Members on the various projects her office is undertaking. Among them: HouseLive, a new service that will offer online, real-time video of House sessions as well as a video archive of the 111th Congress. Members will also be able to create clips from the videos to use on their Web sites or on YouTube.

Miller said the program will start in its “beta” version on March 15.

“This service will maximize transparency and will increase public awareness of legislative proceedings,” she said in her prepared testimony, comparing the service to C-SPAN. “In the same way, HouseLive will provide broader access to the House of Representatives using current popular technology.