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House backers of proposed cuts to federal law enforcement see Johnson as an ally

Part of the GOP conference has pushed to slash spending at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Speaker Mike Johnson leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference on Tuesday.
Speaker Mike Johnson leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republican colleagues of Speaker Mike Johnson anticipate he’ll be an ally of efforts to slash the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies, a rallying point for the right flank that could set up a clash in funding showdowns against the White House and Senate Democrats.

House Republicans have proposed a 2024 spending bill that would implement cuts for high-profile federal law enforcement entities, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The push reflects conservative desires to cut government spending combined with an openly hostile view of the FBI and the Justice Department over perceived political bias within the agencies.

And it dovetails with Republican outrage at the criminal cases against former President Donald Trump and the handling of the investigation into President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

The latest version of the fiscal 2024 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill would cut topline funding for the FBI by 9 percent and execute a 12 percent topline cut for the ATF, according to a Republican explanatory report associated with the bill. Under the measure, funding for salaries and expenses would be reduced by 4 percent at the FBI and by 8 percent at the ATF.

Republicans also included a provision that would prevent the agency from funding construction of new FBI headquarters by specifying that previously appropriated but unobligated funding for new headquarters construction could only be used to sustain the current J. Edgar Hoover headquarters building in Washington.

Last week, the House voted 145-273 to reject an amendment on a different spending bill from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would block funds from being used to acquire property for a new FBI headquarters.  There were 70 “no” votes from Republicans. Johnson, as speaker, was not recorded in that vote.

Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding how he might approach the topic of federal law enforcement funding.

Several of his former Judiciary Committee colleagues view the speaker as a supporter in the effort to reduce funding for the FBI and the ATF.

“I do see him as an ally in that push because he’s been here on the Judiciary Committee with us for the last seven years observing the intolerable abuses of those agencies,” Gaetz said.

Rep. Ben Cline, a Virginia Republican who also serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Justice Department funding, said he thinks Johnson “recognizes the need to reduce spending for our weaponized DOJ.”

“So as to specifics, I’ll leave it to him, but I would say he’s in general agreement,” Cline said.

Another House Judiciary member, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., expressed a similar sentiment when asked if he thought Johnson would support cutting funding to parts of federal law enforcement.

Past criticism

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, is a staunch conservative and has been critical of the FBI, the ATF and the Justice Department during his time on the House Judiciary Committee.

During an oversight hearing with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in September, Johnson said Americans were “witnessing every day a politicized Justice Department and a two-tiered system of justice.”

“For example, they see the DOJ of course aggressively prosecuting President Biden’s chief political rival, Mr. Trump, while at the same time they see slow walking and special treatment given to the president’s son,” Johnson said. “That’s just a fact that everybody can see with their own two eyes.”

Johnson went on to question Garland about the Hunter Biden investigation — a source of continued grievances from Republicans.

At another oversight hearing, Johnson told FBI Director Christopher Wray this summer that the American people have lost faith in the agency.

“All of our constituents are demanding that we get this situation under control, and we have to do that. That’s our responsibility. This is not a political party issue, sir. This is about whether the very system of justice in our country can be trusted anymore,” Johnson said.

The fiscal 2024 Commerce-Justice-Science bill never got a vote at the House Appropriations Committee, but Republicans have teed it up at the House Rules Committee for floor action this week.

Democratic criticism

Democrats will likely slam Republicans over the proposed cuts to federal law enforcement, particularly because the measure runs counter to the GOP’s traditional back-the-blue rhetoric and years of criticism of activist slogans about defunding law enforcement.

The Biden administration put out a fact sheet that said the proposed reduction to the FBI would cut up to 673 agents, while the ATF would have to eliminate more than 200 agents.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Justice Department funding, said: “Who’s defunding the police now?”

“Our FBI agents protect American citizens from all sorts of horrendous things like terrorism, foreign and domestic, like kidnapping and rape and robbery and serial murderers,” Cartwright said in an interview. “They do a fabulous job. Why would we want to cut the budget for them?”

Cartwright is one of just five Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2020, and he’s considered among the more vulnerable Democrats up for reelection next year. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Cartwright’s race Tilt Democratic.

The House bill also would cut funding for the dozens of U.S. attorneys’ offices across the nation who are staffed with rank-and-file federal prosecutors, reducing the salary and expenses budget by about 12 percent for those offices and the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The Biden administration reports the reduction would cut about 1,400 positions.

Some Republicans have sought to draw a distinction between agency leadership within federal law enforcement, who they have criticized, and law enforcement officials on the ground.

But those arguments have not quelled criticism from law enforcement groups who say the funding levels would simply strike at the nation’s ability to fight crime.

Earlier this year, the then-national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association said in a news release that the proposed cuts to the FBI and other parts of the Justice Department would be “an insult to the thousands of federal law enforcement officers working daily to protect the American people.”

“Congress should not levy disagreements with political leadership by slashing resources and budgets that front-line law enforcement rely on to investigate terrorists, respond to violent crime, and counter transnational drug and human trafficking networks,” the then-national president said in the release.

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