Campus Notebook: Defense of Marriage Act Dispute Stirs Panel

Posted March 27, 2012 at 6:22pm

House General Counsel Kerry Kircher was not one of the main witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing for the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, but he became the subject of scrutiny by Democrats over the chamber’s defense of the law that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Subcommittee ranking member Mike Honda (D-Calif.) pushed Kircher, whose budget the panel oversees, to clarify how much money he expects his team and outside counsel to spend defending the Defense of Marriage Act — and what parameters were in place to determine the cases in which they could and could not intervene.

“We are struggling to pay for security measures, maintain staffs. Office budgets have been slashed, but somehow we seem to find funds to defend unconstitutional laws,” Honda said of the law that garnered 342 “yea” votes when it passed the House in 1996.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) shot back, saying that in light of the Department of Justice’s announcement that it would no longer defend the law in court, it was the House’s obligation to uphold what he called “the law of the land.”

“DOJ can’t cherry-pick … [what] to defend and not defend,” LaTourette said, adding that it’s costing the House money to take up the law’s defense because of the department’s political agenda.

“DOJ is in bed with the plaintiffs,” he said.

The debate over paying to defend the law has been going on since Republican leaders sanctioned a contract a year ago with outside firm Bancroft PLLC to defend the law, with assistance from
Kircher’s in-house team.

The original $500,000 contract was tripled last September to authorize up to $1.5 million. So far, $742,000 has been transferred into the account of the general counsel.

The money doesn’t come through appropriations but via a general House account maintained by the chamber’s Chief Administrative Officer.

“Over the past six months, in an effort to deal with cost issues, we brought more DOMA work back into my office to reduce the amount we expend on outside counsel,” Kircher told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing.

He said there are currently 12 cases before courts that relate to DOMA in which his staff and Bancroft’s could intervene. Of those 12, one case is complete, two were filed within the past few months but the House attorneys have not yet stepped in, and nine cases are pending.

There is no way to tell, Kircher said, how much money would be needed in the months ahead.

“The cap [for spending on this] right now is only $750,000,” Kircher said in response to a question from Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). “It’s hard to know how much we will ultimately spend because it’s hard to know how this litigation ultimately plays out. … The name of the game here is to get some case before the Supreme Court and get a resolution. … When that happens, we will be done and stop spending money.”

House Gets Clean Audit

The House is back in good financial shape a year after auditors found “mismanagement and disengagement” in the performance of former Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard.

The 2011 financial audit, released Tuesday under the leadership of Beard’s successor, Dan Strodel, shows a “clean opinion.”

“This clean opinion is a direct result of … Strodel’s ability to restore the House’s good financial standing through the successful implementation of a comprehensive internal controls program and a new financial management system,” reads a “Dear Colleague” letter signed by Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee.

In fiscal 2011, the CAO contracted the public accounting firm Cotton and Co. to audit House financial statements.

Though the firm’s report is positive overall, it did find two “significant deficiencies” in the House’s financial management.

The House is not, according to Cotton and Co., doing consistent record-keeping to ensure correct reporting of expenditures and transactions. Nor has the House implemented a process to ensure that the chamber’s information technology system is secure against “risks.”

Still, the firm stresses that it does not consider these deficiencies to be “material weaknesses.”

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