Democrats from Seattle to New York are working to cut their police budgets, but not on Capitol Hill, where the House — controlled by Democrats — is moving ahead with a budget that freezes but doesn’t trim any funding for the U.S. Capitol Police.
Instead, Democrats are demanding new training and more accountability, ordering the department to study whether it’s policing too far beyond the Capitol, to release better arrest statistics, and to do a better job communicating with the public.
Republicans gleefully pointed to the full funding as as a vote of confidence in police amid the ongoing debate over policing and race.
“The bill recognizes their service and sacrifice by ensuring they have the resources they need to continue to keep the complex safe,” said Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
Activists, though, saw the budget freeze as a first swipe at a department that’s tripled over the last two decades, and they cheered the new accountability provisions, which were tucked into a report accompanying the bill.
“This is what we asked for. These are all things they should be doing. The Capitol Police for a very long time have operated under a cloak of secrecy,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress. “The goal isn’t to cut their funding or to increase their funding. It’s about making sure the Capitol complex is safe for democracy to take place.”
The funding, which is included in a broader bill to fund Congress’s operations next year, cleared its first big step Friday, gaining approval in the House Appropriations Committee on a 30-18 vote.
Republicans voted against the measure while Democrats, including some of the party’s most liberal members, backed it.
They cheered some of the non-police provisions such as language that would give illegal immigrant “Dreamers” permission to work, for pay, in the halls of Congress. Currently they are barred because, despite DACA’s grant of work permits, they don’t have a path to citizenship, which is required under the law for someone to work on Capitol Hill.
Democrats also gloated over language that would order the removal of statues of figures from the Confederacy and others Democrats said are too tainted to be allowed to remain in the halls of Congress, such as former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision that ruled the Constitution didn’t envision citizenship for Africans or their descendants.
“I hope that this action will begin a larger conversation we need to have about other statues in the Capitol,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the House’s legislative appropriations subcommittee and who sponsored the bill.
The only Democrat to mention the policing issue during Friday’s committee meeting was Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who complained that the Capitol Police had their collective bargaining agreement suspended during coronavirus, and he urged that situation be corrected.
The Washington Times reached out to a local Black Lives Matter organization and several others who have backed the “Defund Police” movement but none responded to inquiries about the bill’s funding decisions.
The $464.3 million included for police makes up about a tenth of the overall legislative branch spending bill. That’s 11% less than the $516.7 million the department requested,
Mr. Ryan did boost the pool of money going to salaries by $16.7 million, ensuring the department won’t have to cut any officers, but he cut that same amount from other expenses such as new vehicles, communications equipment and training.
Police Chief Steven A. Sund had asked for an increase in order to carry out plans to update the obsolete campus-wide alert system put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and to make other technology and equipment upgrades.
The new bill does include money for the updated alert system.
The Senate, controlled by Republicans, will produce its own version of the bill, which may be more generous to the department’s full request. A compromise bill will eventually have to be hammered out.
But lawmakers in both parties are looking for places to make new changes, and the spending process is a likely battleground. Beyond the Capitol Police, Congress controls funding for the FBI, ICE, the Border Patrol and other major federal law enforcement agencies, and it controls billions of dollars in grant money that can be used to push states and localities in a new direction.
The Capitol Police force totals 2,300 officers and civilians, meaning it’s twice the size of the police department in Minneapolis, where the death of a black man, George Floyd, sparked the new debate over race and police accountability.
Its budget and staffing soared in recent years, with major realignments after the 1998 deaths of two officers at the hands of a gunman who gained access to the Capitol, and again after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But even in more recent times the money has poured in. In 2017, the department’s budget was $393.3 million, rising to $426.5 million in next year, $456.3 million in 2019 and the current $464.3 million level.
Among the changes House Democrats proposed are making the department have to respond to public information requests.
Because it is part of the legislative branch it’s exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law that governs requests to executive agencies. But the bill orders the department to come up with a FOIA-like system so the public can get information.
Democrats also demanded reports on steps the department takes to promote hiring of “underrepresented groups” and on what sorts of training exist to prevent racial profiling.
Mr. Schuman said it doesn’t generally make sense to compare the job of the Capitol Police to a local department — though the Capitol’s force has increasingly expanded its jurisdiction, and patrols not just the Capitol grounds but a large perimeter beyond the House and Senate footprint, including Union Station.
“A lot of their arrests are for nonsense,” Mr. Schuman said. “Somebody smoking pot on their doorstep 10 blocks from the Capitol, the Capitol Police should leave them alone.”
The new bill orders the department to report back on how much of its policing happens “beyond USCP’s primary and extended jurisdictions.”
“They’re making a real effort to grapple with the questions of who are the Capitol Police, what is their mission, how are they accomplishing it and are their resources an appropriate fit for what they’re supposed to be doing,” Mr. Schuman said.