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Appropriators Opt to Put Off New Radios for Cops

An amendment to the emergency war supplemental bill that would have provided the Capitol Police with $16 million to begin modernizing it’s out-of-date radio communications system was shot down last week during debate within the House Appropriations Committee.

Instead, the chairwoman of the subcommittee on the legislative branch, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), promised to deal with the issue in the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill. Doing so would provide the department’s newly installed management team to come up with its own plan for phasing in a new communication system rather than imposing a modernization plan on them, she said.

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse has said replacing the 20-year-old system would cost about $35 million and take up to three years to complete. The department didn’t request funding for it in its fiscal 2008 budget, however, in part because the brass is focusing on realigning personnel. The department instead requested $11 million to maintain its current system.

But Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who submitted the amendment at the supplemental markup, said that waiting until 2008 to begin modernizing the radios puts the Capitol at risk.

“On Sept. 11, [2001] this Capitol was in fact a target,” Wamp said. “It could be again. I don’t want to wait until the ’08 bill. This is an emergency item. What’s happening overseas is so important but so are the homeland security needs we have here.”

Wamp’s plan was to use funding that had been stricken from the supplemental earlier in the day and retarget that money for the radio effort. The $16 million had been earmarked for “bollards, blast protection and other security improvements” at the old Food and Drug Administration building, which sits across the street from the Ford House Office Building. Members of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol are contemplating alleviating the space crunch on the House side by assuming control of about 200,000 square feet within the former FDA building for committee staff.

“I would respectfully ask that we move this $16 million that was taken out over to this most important item and hope and pray that nothing happens until that money is available to upgrade this system so we can communicate,” Wamp said. “We need this now, not whenever the ’08 bill is signed into law seven or eight months from now.”

Before the vote that shot down Wamp’s amendment, Wasserman Schultz noted that while she contemplated requesting money for the radios in the supplemental, she thought the funding could be spent more effectively after senior police officers review a recently completed Government Accountability Office study of the department’s fiscal management during 2006. A November 2005 report by the GAO described the department’s financial management as in “crisis mode.”

“While they certainly need these radios and interoperability is incredibly important, it is also incredibly important that we be fiscally responsible. This is an emergency supplemental. We need to make sure we take care of the things that absolutely need to be taken care of and not throw good money after bad,” said Wasserman Schultz. “My preference is to allow Chief Morse to get his fiscal house in order, keep track of his property, make sure he can comply with the GAO recommendations and then make sure we can deal with this very important matter in the ’08 regular order.”

For his part, Morse said Friday that the radios remain “a top priority.”

“We’re appreciative of the attention and support the committees have provided to us for this endeavor,” Morse said. “USCP will continue to manage with the most efficient and effective business processes and use the GAO report to guide us in areas of most concern. Our current budget request covers the needs to maintain our current radio system.”

One Congressional campus funding provision that remained in the supplemental bill after Thursday’s markup was a provision to grant $50 million dollars to the Architect of the Capitol to move forward with “asbestos abatement and other improvements” in the miles of utility tunnels that run beneath the Capitol campus. Another provision provides $6.4 million to the House Chief Administrative Officer to provide for equipment and computers at alternative legislative branch facilities as part of continuity of Congress planning.

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