Spending to Defend DOMA Dominates House Hearing, Raises Democrats’ Ire

Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:37pm

It didn’t take long for a hearing on legislative branch funding to get tense Tuesday, with House Democrats blasting Republican leadership for authorizing $3 million in taxpayer money to defend outside legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act while at the same time calling for sweeping cuts to members’ offices, committee budgets and congressional operating agencies such as the Capitol Police.

“At a time when most members of this body are representing newly formed congressional districts with a need to open new offices or move to new locations, we find ourselves with an 8.2 percent decrease in the very operating budgets that support constituent services,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the ranking member of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee. “And yet, we spend up to $3 million to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Democratic members of the subcommittee — including Wasserman Schultz and James P. Moran of Virginia, as well as Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York — said at the hearing that they are worried about the long-term viability of keeping the House staffed with the best employees they can find and serving their constituents properly with such diminished budgets.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, who was the only Republican in attendance during the DOMA portion of the hearing, did not respond to their statements. Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, defended the DOMA legal fees later in the day. “As long as the Justice Department refuses to defend the law of the land, Congress has a constitutional responsibility to do so,” Steel said.

President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court in February 2011, and the Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on the DOMA challenge March 27.

In January, Republicans on the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group authorized continued funding to outside legal counsel to defend challenges to DOMA in federal courts across the country. The BLAG is tasked with directing the House Office of General Counsel and is composed of five members of House leadership, including the speaker, the majority and minority leaders and the majority and minority whips.

That same month, the House Administration Committee approved a contract with the law firm Bancroft PLLC that increased the budget for such outside legal challenges to DOMA from $2 million to $3 million.

Kerry Kircher, the House’s general counsel who testified at the hearing, said that, thus far, the House has defended the constitutionality of DOMA in 15 legal challenges to the law in states such as California, New York and Connecticut at a cost of about $1.6 million. Kircher added that four lawyers from Bancroft and six lawyers in the House Office of General Counsel are working on the matter at a blended rate of about $525 an hour.

“I’m a little stunned that we’re cutting back on everything else and we are getting involved in all these cases that are clearly on the wrong side of history,” Moran said at the hearing.

Cutbacks to congressional operating budgets were already being felt on Capitol Hill, but this month’s widespread sequester cuts came with additional hits. Cuts to the Capitol Police budget forced the agency to close a number of entrance and exit points into the Capitol complex to save overtime pay, causing long lines and frustration for staff and visitors. At the same time, sequester-caused cuts to Members’ Representational Allowances have forced many members to freeze hiring and staff salaries, as well as cut back on constituent services.

Although the hearing devolved into a debate over the merits of the DOMA defense funding, it was originally meant for the offices of the House sergeant-at-arms, the House clerk and the House chief administrative officer to defend their budget requests for fiscal 2014. The SAA requested $12.6 million, the clerk $24 million and the CAO $123.5 million.