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Chief, Appropriators Keep Pushing for Radio Upgrades

Lawmakers and Capitol Police officials continued last week to stress the need for a new radio communications system — which one Senator called “the highest priority” — even though the department did not request funding for it in the fiscal 2008 budget.

Testifying at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Friday, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse said the current radio system does not allow officers to communicate with nearby police agencies, something that would be essential in the event of a terrorist attack or other major disaster.

“Many of the state, local and federal law enforcement agencies have interoperable radio systems,” Morse said. “So, one of my priorities is to modernize our radio systems so we … can coordinate our efforts.”

Replacing the current system would cost about $35 million and take up to three years to complete, according to department estimates.

Capitol Police officials didn’t request funding for the system in their budget request because the department is focusing on fiscal stability and realigning its personnel. They instead have opted to ask for $11 million to maintain the current system.

But Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told Morse that she and ranking member Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) would work to find additional funding resources for the radios, which she labeled as essential. A Landrieu spokesman said Friday such funding could come from a future supplemental bill.

“I can tell you, that having survived through [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita and the total collapse of the communication system that existed during that natural disaster, and then, of course, we all went through the [Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks] experience here, that that is one of the absolute fundamental, critical tools necessary to manage people fleeing in an orderly way,” Landrieu said.

She later added: “I know there are serious needs around the country, but I think we could successfully argue that starting at the Capitol for interoperability would be the highest priority for the nation, and for this region.”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who also testified Friday, said the department has commissioned outside government agencies to assess Capitol Hill’s current communication situation. The results of those studies confirm the need for interoperable capabilities, added Gainer, who heads the Capitol Police Board.

Across the Capitol, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, continued his push to find funding for the radios at a hearing on Thursday.

In March, Wamp introduced an amendment to the emergency war supplemental bill to provide the Capitol Police with $16 million to modernize the current system. The amendment was shot down by the full committee, but Wamp’s efforts have not appeared to waiver.

At the subcommittee hearing last week, Wamp asked House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood — who appeared to testify on his office’s 2008 budget request — if continued funding of the current system is cost-effective.

Livingood, who sits on the Capitol Police Board, replied that it is not cost-effective, adding that there will be a continued push for a new system.

Wamp used his closing remarks to again advocate for an upgrade, saying that a Congress that has found hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the Capitol Visitor Center can find the money needed to protect the Capitol itself.

“We cannot ignore communications anymore,” Wamp said.

Other Capitol Matters

Security officials weren’t the only ones questioned by House appropriators last week.

House Clerk Lorraine Miller and Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard joined Livingood in testifying before the legislative branch subcommittee at a hearing that touched on a range of topics affecting Congressional employees.

Led by subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), committee members grilled the witnesses on topics from employee benefits to increasing office space to efforts to make the Capitol more eco-friendly.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) asked Beard if it was possible to change the House’s payroll methods. Under the current system, most House staffers receive paychecks only once a month, Lee explained, which can create obvious financial concerns.

Lee suggested moving to a system in which staffers are paid once every two weeks.

“I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Beard said, adding that legislation would be required to change the current system.

“We will save money,” Beard said. “And, it’s the standard operating procedure of every organization in this country.”

Members and witnesses also discussed a potential study of the House’s mail security system.

Currently, all mail is screened through the CAO’s office, which can create delays. Plus, many Members go around the system, choosing to send packages and other mail to their district offices or even staffers’ homes.

“I think you’d have to look at it very carefully,” Livingood said, adding that mail still poses a security risk more than five years after the fall 2001 anthrax attacks.

Wasserman Schultz insisted the panel is not looking at changing the system right away but rather seeking to “explore more effective ways of tightening the system, and maybe making the system more convenient.”

John McArdle contributed to this report.