As a House panel meets today to vet the Capitol Police budget for fiscal 2008, lawmakers will get the same reminder they get every four years — the devil is in the details.
With roughly a dozen Members of Congress either running for president or at least contemplating a bid, the department is making its own campaign preparations, both to assign security details to the candidates who need them and to deploy officers to next summer’s national party conventions.
A presidential election year “is a busier time because the people for whom you do have direct responsibility for security are doing a lot of traveling,” said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who currently serves as chairman of the Capitol Police Board and previously worked for four years as chief of the Capitol Police.
Plus, when the Democratic and Republican conventions roll around “there’s a lot more people going to conventions, leadership goes to conventions so it does get busier.”
Gainer noted that most of the department’s added expenses during an election year — like the cost of sending approximately 10 percent of the force to the two major party conventions — can be anticipated.
But what about the fact that as of today somewhere in the area of 11 current Members of Congress have either filed with the FEC to run for president, formed exploratory committees to do so or have expressed serious interest in running? Will the unusually large number of Congressional candidates make the job of the Capitol Police and its Dignitary Protection Division tougher this year?
The quick answer, according to Gainer, is “no.”
“Just because one is either a candidate or thinking about being a candidate or has an exploratory committee, would not per se entitle you to protection by the Capitol Police or the Secret Service,” he said.
In fact, there’s a complex formula that the Secret Service uses to determine when the executive branch finally kicks in and picks up security and until that time, a lawmaker who is running for president wouldn’t necessarily be entitled to any special security from the Capitol Police unless there was a specific threat.
“And frankly, that would hold true whether you were running for [president] or not,” Gainer said.
The House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch will vet the police’s overall budget today. The department is seeking $299 million for fiscal 2008, a 16.8 percent increase over its current $255.9 million.
The Capitol Police would not say how many officers make up its dignitary protection division or how much money the department is requesting in fiscal 2008 specifically for protection services.
“Those figures would give away our strategy for deployment, assets and resources,” a Capitol Police spokeswoman said.
Gainer said dignitary protection and threat assessment “is not a budget-breaking issue for the Capitol Police. … It’s a cost of business that’s factored in.”
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Secret Service is expecting to spend somewhere in the area of $85 million over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign to protect candidates seeking the White House.
Secret Service protection is not given to candidates at the moment they announce their candidacy. In fact, a candidate must reach certain thresholds — including being entered in at least 10 state primaries, qualifying for matching funds in the amount of $100,000 and receiving contributions totaling at least $2 million — as well as be approved by an advisory committee made up of the four top Congressional leaders and a fifth person (to be chosen by the leadership) to be granted a Secret Service detail.
Meanwhile, the criteria for granting a Member of Congress a Capitol Police security detail is a lot less formulaic.
“The interesting thing is it’s not one moment that makes the difference,” Gainer said. “It is not some filing with the election commission. It is not some FEC thing. What the Capitol Police does and what the Sergeants-at-Arms do is monitor what’s going on with every Member. … Now, a Member could get a lot of notoriety just because [of] an issue they are involved in as much as an elected office they are running for. So everything really is threat-driven.”
Gainer noted that there are a few high-ranking Members in the House and Senate whom the Capitol Police will always have security responsibility for — such as the Speaker of the House, who is third in line for the presidency — but whether any other Member is granted full-time or part-time protection depends on the threat level to the individual.
“There’s not a list per se,” he said. “But clearly the more notoriety, the more likelihood that there could be someone in a position opposite of you. There are some Members even not in an election season who take positions where people object to them and they become more likely to be a victim of a threat. But clearly if you are running for president you are going to draw more attention, and more attention can be positive and there can be more negative attention.”
In monitoring threats against Members, the Capitol Police coordinate and share many of their resources with the Secret Service, the FBI and local police agencies.
“If a threat comes in from Chicago on a particular Senator, we would not send someone out to Chicago,” Gainer said. “We would contact the Chicago police or local FBI or local Secret Service to do that.”
But Gainer would not say how many Members currently have full-time protective details. Speaking from his Senate Sergeant-at-Arms perspective, he did say that the threat level against the Senators “in general is extremely low, and it is rare that we offer the type of protection” that one would envision the president having.
But Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who served as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch in the 108th Congress, said this week that in his time in Congress he has seen Members abuse security details and seen money thrown away on dignitary protection for threats that just aren’t serious or legitimate.
“I think generally the Members who use personal details absolutely don’t need them,” Kingston said. “Just stand outside the Capitol at night when we are through with votes and look at the black Suburbans that are lined up to take people to cocktail parties and fundraisers. … Some of these guys are basically limousine drivers. I think the taxpayers would be outraged” by the amount of resources that are spent on dignitary protection for Members of Congress.
“You do have your share of nuts, and crackpots and weirdos who want to exercise their freedom of speech sometimes and they want to go beyond that and do other forms of expression that aren’t free,” he said. “And we do need to be vigilant on that. But I really do think we can and do go overboard time and time again. I think Members like the ego boost of an entourage that if they were paying for it themselves it would suddenly become unnecessary.”