Sen. Richard Durbin’s support for re-directing $165 million in Justice Department funds to purchase a shuttered Illinois prison is getting strong push-back from other lawmakers, who say their states are in line ahead of Illinois for any money to open prisons.
Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., was once proposed to house detainees transferred from the military’s Guantanamo Bay facility. Although the Barack Obama administration long ago abandoned plans to close Guantanamo in the face of congressional opposition, the fight over the prison remains intense — this time on the more parochial level of how to distribute federal funds at a time of tight budgets.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, has been the public face of the opposition to the reprogramming request backed by Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who serves as the Majority Whip, the No. 2 official in the Senate Democratic leadership.
“Partisan politics and the personal feelings of one Congressman from Virginia, Republican Frank Wolf, shouldn’t be able to stand in the way of a project that is important to our nation’s prison system and our local economy,” Durbin said in a news release on Tuesday.
But in a letter on Friday to Durbin, who is also a senior Appropriations Committee member, Wolf wrote that it is “not accurate” that he is the “sole objector.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), and the Alabama House delegation have all written letters to Attorney General Eric Holder in the last week opposing the proposed reprogramming. The common theme was that Durbin’s request unfairly sidesteps other empty prison facilities waiting for the funding needed to open. The Bureau of Prisons already owns four newly constructed but never used prisons in Yazoo City, Miss.; Berlin, N.H.; Aliceville, Ala., and Hazelton, West Virginia.
“It makes no fiscal sense for a cash-strapped agency to purchase an overpriced and decade-old prison, while it already has four new prisons not in use,” Hutchison, who is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, wrote in her letter.
The Alabama delegation wrote that 378 jobs would be created by opening the new prison in Aliceville. Durbin has also cited jobs, saying the opening of Thomson will create 1,100 additional jobs.
But Wolf has objected to the manner in which the funding would be obtained to re-open Thomson. It would be through a so-called reprogramming, or re-directing of existing funds, as opposed to a new appropriation from the Congress.
The Justice Department would shift $151 million from its Assets Forfeiture Fund, which holds more than $1 billion in criminal proceeds forfeited to the government; and $18 million from the Bureau of Prison’s budget, to pay for the reopening of Illinois prison.
Wolf argues that reprogramming is the equivalent of a congressional earmarking of newly appropriated funds, which is disallowed under current House rules.
Moreover, Wolf said in his letter that he simply cannot trust the Justice Department. He cited its handling of the failed gun-tracing investigation Operation Fast and Furious; its refusal to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman; and a recent opinion from a federal judge that seemed to cast doubt on the department’s insistence that political appointees had no role in dismissing a voter intimidation case in 2009 against the New Black Panther Party.
“Whether one agrees or disagrees with the policy behind these decisions, it is clear that these actions represent an unprecedented executive branch dismissal of federal laws,” Wolf wrote to Durbin. Wolf elaborated in an interview with Main Justice, saying, ”There is not a lot of trust. Very few people in Congress really believe that Justice has cooperated.”
Durbin, in his own letter to Wolf on Friday, said the reprogramming request isn’t “an earmark by any definition,” but a routine way to shift funds within the federal budget.
“By your logic, all of those projects just became ‘earmarks’ because I have announced my support for them,” Durbin wrote. He told Wolf he thought his larger political battle with the Attorney General “obscures your ability to see this issue on its merits.”
Wolf, meanwhile, wrote that the Guantanamo Bay debate still casts a shadow over Thomson.
He said that while Holder promised not to transfer any Guantanamo detainees to Thomson, the Attorney General did not make similar assurances for other prisons, like the Florence, Colo., supermax facility. And he wrote that an Obama executive order to close Guantanamo remains in effect, even though the plan seemingly has been abandoned.
The Justice Department has no plans to move any Guantanamo Bay detainees the Thomson, a department spokesperson said.
“The Department restated in the reprogramming notification its commitment to not transfer detainees from the Department of Defense facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Thomson Correctional Center,” the spokesperson said. “Furthermore, Congress has already enacted prohibitions on the use of funds to transfer any of these detainees to the United States.”