President Barack Obama is forging ahead with plans to purchase an Illinois prison facility, despite push back from lawmakers who say the transaction makes no sense in a time of strapped budgets.
The government today began the process to buy the long-vacant Thomson Correctional Center from Illinois for $165 million. Obama directed the Justice Department, on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons, to press forward on the purchase, which has faced major objections from some GOP lawmakers.
“After facing a political standoff in the House of Representatives, I went directly to the president and asked him to take this action,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s Majority Whip, said in a statement.
Durbin has been an advocate for the purchase of the super-max facility, saying the prison would bring 1,100 jobs to northwestern Illinois and would also alleviate overcrowding at the high-security supermax prison in Florence, Colo. But lawmakers from Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Texas all criticized the Justice Department for moving forward on Thomson when newly constructed prisons in their home states were still waiting for funds to open. They said it seemed Thomson had “jumped the line.”
Wolf called the timing of the purchase “suspect,” saying it appeared to be intended to boost Obama in his home state on Election Day. “This may be the most disreputable Justice Department in modern history,” Wolf said in a statement.
Durbin, the Senate’s Majority Whip, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn hosted a news conference in Thomson, Ill., today to discuss the purchase. In a call with reporters, Durbin called the purchase a long overdue “shot in the arm to the economy of northwestern Illinois.”
The purchase had been tied up for months after the Justice Department made a reprogramming request in July to the House Appropriations subcommittee that overseas Justice Department funding. Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) rejected the proposal, condemning the department’s “willingness to ignore the law if it is politically expedient.” Wolf defined the funding request as an “earmark,” which are banned under current House rules. In addition, Obama had previously proposed the facility be used to house suspected terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And although the administration dropped the idea of closing the military prison, Wolf said he is concerned the Thomson facility could eventually be used to hold the detainees.
Wolf also called Obama’s decision an “unprecedented directive to Attorney General Holder to circumvent Congress.”
In his call with reporters, Durbin emphasized the Justice Department’s assurances that no Guantanamo detainees would be housed in the Thomson facility, saying “concerns from the congressman are not serious concerns.” He said the money used to purchase the facility is from the Bureau of Prisons, thus barring its use for military detainees. Congress passed a measure last year barring the Department of Defense from using money to transfer Gitmo detainees to the United States.
House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) also blasted the Obama administration for what he called a “back-door move.”
“Congress has vehemently denied this request and has refused funding for the prison at every step of the way. The American people do not want Guantanamo detainees in the U.S., and should not have to tolerate the risk of these terrorists residing in their backyards,” Rogers said in the statement. “This back-door move by the Obama Administration … will be met with the full and unfettered opposition of the Appropriations Committee.”
Durbin said that a signature on a reprogramming request by the subcommittee chairmen is a courtesy. “When an agency wants to transfer unobligated funds, they notify and receive a routine letter of approval” from the necessary subcommittee chairmen, which occurs 99 out of 100 times without issue, he said. After three attempts to work through issues with Wolf to no avail, Durbin said the administration had to move forward.