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Cuts to Sergeant-at-Arms Raise Concerns for Some

After the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January, Members began looking into ways to secure their district offices. Now, some Democrats are questioning whether House leaders will give them enough money to do so.

Members’ Representational Allowances and the House Sergeant-at-Arms office face budget cuts, while House appropriators have proposed flat funding for the Capitol Police.

At a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday to set parameters for this week’s floor debate on the legislative branch spending bill, Rep. Jared Polis — who said he received threats as recently as last week — singled out those cuts as his main concern.

“Security is hardly a luxury,” the Colorado Democrat said. “How can you justify cutting the Sergeant-at-Arms by 10 percent?”

Although the Sergeant-at-Arms’ budget appears larger than it was last Congress, the increase actually comes because it was combined with the Office of Emergency Management, which was created after 9/11 to assist in emergency planning. That office was flat-funded, while the Sergeant-at-Arms received an $890,000 cut.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, assured Polis that the reduction would not affect security. In an interview before the hearing, the Florida Republican said administrative employees and equipment purchases would most likely take the hit.

“We made sure that none of the cuts to this office were going to affect any kind of safety issues,” he said.

After the Giffords shooting, the Sergeant-at-Arms offered Members free ADT Security assessments in the district offices. The House Administration Committee also authorized Members to use their MRAs to pay for suggested security enhancements.

But between the 5 percent MRA cut of last fiscal year and the 6.4 percent cut proposed for fiscal 2012 — a reduction that would average about $80,000 per office — Members might be put in a situation where they have to choose to fire one employee in order to afford to protect the rest, some Democrats argued.

“We are told that we need to secure our district offices more — for our safety, the safety of our staff and, most importantly, the safety of our constituents,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, in a statement. “How are we supposed to pay for that?”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield said he had planned to install bulletproof glass and a digital combination keypad lock at his North Carolina district office, but now he’s not so sure.

“That was the plan. Now that we’ve got this dramatic cut, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” the Democrat said.

Rep. Sanford Bishop said he’s skeptical Members will be left with enough money in their MRAs to pay for the upgrades. He was advised to improve lighting and create a barrier between his Georgia offices’ public and work areas.

“The security assessments that the Sergeant-at-Arms paid for for all of our offices were very, very telling. But to implement the recommendations for the safety of our constituents and Members and staffs, it’s going to cost some funds,” the Democrat said. “The MRA is not sufficient.”

Bishop has proposed an amendment to the legislative branch bill that would reassign $1 million from a fund used to assist freshmen in procuring furniture to create a fund within the Capitol Police to assist in paying for district security upgrades.

Sergeant-at-Arms spokeswoman Kerri Hanley said that no matter where the budget ends up, the agency would “be able to fully execute our security mission” and that they will help Members efficiently spend their money.

“We will coordinate the provision of professional security assistance to Members by conducting surveys and reviewing office selection options, security systems and policies to aid them in achieving the best value for their security dollars spent,” Hanley said in an email.

Republicans said that is the real lesson of the budget cut: Do more with less.

Rep. Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent, said Members can mitigate the security impact of the cuts by raising their awareness when they are at home.

“We have to be a little more efficient but also a little more diligent so the Capitol Police has less work,” the New York Republican said. “None of that costs money.”

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