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Members Weigh Costs of Security

Some Call for MRA Increases in Time of Budget Cuts, Overall Debt Concerns

Members are pitching a broad range of ideas to increase their security in the wake of an assassination attempt on one of their own. If any of the proposals come to fruition, one uncomfortable reality is certain: It will cost money.

For a new Republican majority elected to rein in government spending, the perceived need for more Member security could set up tricky votes on whether to spend more taxpayer money on themselves.

Speaker John Boehner met with Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a “security overview” in the runup to today’s closed-door security briefing for Members. 

But when asked about the spending issue Tuesday, the Ohio Republican sidestepped committing to any funding spikes.

“We’ll rely on the recommendations of the Sergeant-at-Arms and the Capitol Police,” he told Roll Call. “It’s a horrible tragedy involving one of our Members, and we’re trying to deal with the tragedy and trying to ensure we do our best to protect our Members.” 

Some of those Members, however, are calling on the Speaker to rescind his 5 percent House budget cut and actually increase personal budgets.

Assistant Leader James Clyburn told Roll Call that each district should undergo an individualized security assessment and Members representing districts more prone to threats should receive additional money in their Members’ Representational Allowances to hire security personnel.

“Each Member ought to be able to have the assessments that are made take their Congressional district into account,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “We make special provisions for Members’ travel based upon where they’re from, and I think part of the threat assessments that are made need to be where Members are from.”

Clyburn’s proposal could be one of many discussed today when House Members meet face-to-face for the first time since the Saturday shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) to discuss security with Livingood and representatives from the FBI. 

While the security meeting is likely not the venue for a discussion of the fiscal repercussions of enhancing Member security, some Members have not held back in expressing their belief that more money is needed. 

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said he plans to propose legislation that will restore last week’s 5 percent cut to House budgets and actually increase budgets by 10 percent for district security needs.

“In some districts, that will mean hiring security personnel for public events,” the Illinois Democrat said in a statement. 

“In other areas, that may mean installing surveillance cameras at district offices as a deterrent or improving the locks or the entry systems in district offices. Some will need more resources in order to move their offices to a safer area.”

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) has said he will push for more security funding from his seat on the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said he will reintroduce legislation to enclose the House visitors galleries with Plexiglas or a similar material.

But other Members have refrained from calls to up security spending.

Rep. Jack Kingston, who has proposed cutting security details for “lower-level leadership” Members, said there is no reason to increase office budgets.

“Within a Member’s existing budget, if they want to shift things around, they can,” the Georgia Republican said. “If you want to hire a former police officer, you can do that. If you want to put cameras in your office, you can do that.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx said she’s not ruling out added protective measures for Members, but she’s not changing anything herself for the time being. She warned that talk of security cameras and protective details might be a knee-jerk reaction.

“If it could be shown that it can prevent something like what happened on Saturday then certainly we should do it, but I’m just not sure we can plan for every contingency and I don’t want us to overreact,” the North Carolina Republican said. “There’s nothing you can do to stop people who are unhinged or mentally unbalanced.”

As former chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee on the Legislative Branch, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is familiar with office budgets and also said she wants to make sure Congress doesn’t go too far.

“It may be that we can take steps that don’t really cost us anything,” the Florida Democrat said. “But look, you can’t really put a price on safety. I think we have to have the appropriate amount of security and safety” for Members, constituents and staff.

Left out of the discussion so far is whether to increase the Capitol Police budget. 

The department’s budget has ballooned by about 400 percent since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Capitol was a direct target.

But in a sense the force’s budget is still stretched thin, and the 1,800-officer department does not have the resources to protect every Member all the time. 

The department’s fiscal 2011 expenses budget was cut by $5 million in the appropriations bill passed at the end of last term. Part of that was to provide for an increase in its salary budget — not to hire more officers but instead to backfill a multimillion-dollar shortfall that could have caused furloughs.

Although members of leadership always have security details, other Members can contact the Sergeants-at-Arms or the Capitol Police if they want extra protection. 

But the requests can be denied, said a Capitol Police source who is not authorized to speak with the media.

Members are assigned dignitary protection only if the threat assessment section finds there are credible threats against the Member.

“The only people who get protection are leadership and people who have specific, creditable threats directed toward them,” the source said.

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