In a budget hearing on Capitol Hill, Attorney General Eric Holder fielded questions about some recent hot topics: Fast and Furious, voter identification laws and the new contraceptive insurance coverage compromise coming out of the White House.
Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and science, Holder noted $700 million in savings he said the Justice Department found for the fiscal year 2013 proposed budget. The FY13 budget requests $27.1 billion which is a .4 percent decrease from last year, Holder said. The department found efficiencies in consolidation of programs and a more deliberate approach to travel, he said.
“I know you understand that, in this time of great challenge and consequence, we simply cannot afford to cut back on the extent or quality of justice we are obliged to deliver,” Holder said in a prepared statement to the committee. “The department is responsible for protecting this nation and enforcing the law — and these efforts must be appropriately and adequately funded.”
Some have criticized the DOJ’s proposed budget, with Sen. Charles Grassley calling it a “sleight of hand.” Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) echoed this sentiment on Tuesday, saying in a prepared statement that he is concerned “by a number of budgeting gimmicks which undermine the integrity of this request.”
Rogers pointed to the Bureau of Prisons budget request, which, he says, relies on the enactment of legislation outside the jurisdiction of the committee. It would create $41 million in savings, but was not included in the FY12 bill.
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) said that while a .4 percent decrease is well and good, there are larger concerns with the overall management of the department, including Holder’s leadership in the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal.
He said constituents have asked if the government is facing an enormous deficit — borrowing nearly $4 billion a day — why shouldn’t Congress cut from the Justice Department, given “what appears to be a failure of leadership?”
“If you are supposed to be cutting programs, why aren’t you cutting some of his?” Yoder said his constituents ask of him.
Holder responded that the department has found nearly $700 million in savings for 2013, even as the price for keeping the Bureau of Prisons afloat as overcrowding continues. The Attorney General also noted that he has not shied away from responsibility of the botched gun-walking program in Arizona.
“I think it was a bad attempt at trying to deal with a very pernicious problem,” he said. “In its execution… it was fundamentally flawed. Allowing guns to walk is a procedure that just does not make sense. It’s bad law enforcement and is at the heart of the problem with Fast and Furious.”
Yoder countered, asking why the Justice Department has come out against a unanimously passed Senate amendment that would cut off funding for any DOJ operations that allow guns to cross the border if agents cannot keep track of the weapons at all times. “This [criticism] is coming from real Americans who are outraged that their federal government is allowing this to happen,” Yoder said. “If there is any dismissiveness from the Department of Justice, it fuels the rage.”
Holder said he did not want to leave an impression that these questions about Fast and Furious are illegitimate. He said he can agree on certain things with even some of his harshest critics.
“I have never tried to defend the program, but what has bothered me is that we have taken something that we actually share a concern and it has mushroomed into the political sphere where people are asking for resignations and being threatened with contempt,” he said. “One thing that has to be understood is that once this was brought to my attention, I stopped it. I stopped it.”
Pounding his fist on the table, Holder continued: “When this Attorney General heard about these practices, I said to the men and women of the Department of Justice, ‘This ain’t gonna be the way we conduct business.’ ”
But the Justice Department’s business conduct came under scrutiny later in the hearing, as Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) challenged Holder in on what the congressman characterized as the AG’s personal crusade to block new voter identification laws up for approval in several states.
Culberson asked Holder to drop the Justice Department’s request for date compiling the racial breakdown for the some 650,000 voters in the state who do not have state-issued identification. He said there is no race component on the Texas voter application form, saying the DOJ’s request seems unreasonable and a deliberate attempt to delay the voting process.
“This is a colorblind society,” Culberson said. “You can’t look at this as anything but an effort to delay.”
Holder said the Justice Department will be issuing its determination to the court on March 12 — the deadline to do so. He said upholding Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is important to ensure minority groups and others are not unfairly discriminated against in the voting process. There is little evidence that voter fraud is taking place in states that do not have an increased requirement for state-issued identification, he said.
“Voting is not a privilege; it is a right,” Holder said, noting that he is one of the few people who has prosecuted voter fraud cases. ”It is the lifeblood of our democracy. It is one of the things that distinguishes us from so many other countries.”
Rep. Chaka Fatah, ranking member of the subcommittee, also came to Holder’s defense, pointing out that according to Texas law, a voter cannot use a student ID issued from a state university, but a person can carry a concealed weapon with a permit. “We don’t want my right to vote to be subject to partisan views,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said.
And partisan views on President Barack Obama’s new contraception compromise also came to the floor. Holder said he sees no reason for the Department of Justice not to defend the compromise. Some Republicans on the subcommittee said this stance flies in the face of the department’s recent decision to stop defending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes. Holder said there have been at least 14 instances in the past in which Attorneys General have stopped defending unconstitutional laws, going back as far as 1946.