Attorney General Eric Holder warned on Tuesday that if the budget-cutting “sequester” goes into effect this Friday, the Department of Justice’s ability to fight crime and help state and local agencies do the same will be severely affected. But the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee suggested that perhaps the DOJ is spending too much money on jet travel, conferences and other non-essential items.
Holder’s warning was contained in an otherwise cheerful address to the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, an address in which Holder said he was pleased at the level of cooperation between Washington and state law enforcement across the country.
“But the reality is that our ability to continue building on this progress will be contingent on Congress adopting a balanced deficit reduction plan – and preventing the untenable reductions that will cut over $1.6 billion from the Justice Department’s budget starting on Friday,” he said.
“If this so-called ’sequester’ goes into effect, it will not only curtail the Department’s ability to support our state and local partners, it will have a negative impact on the safety of Americans across the country,” Holder said. “Our capacity – to respond to crimes, investigate wrongdoing, and hold criminals accountable – will be reduced. And, despite our best efforts to limit the impact of sequestration, there’s no question that the effects of these cuts – on our state and local partners, on our entire justice system, and on the American people – will be profound.”
The DOJ issued a statement on Tuesday amplifying Holder’s warning. The $1.6 billion cut would effectively trim 9 percent in the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, the department said. The Justice Department’s current annual budget is about $26.7 billion.
“DOJ components are expected to carefully consider how to prioritize available resources to minimize the impact of sequestration on the department’s ability to carry out essential functions,” the statement said. “The sequestration would cut nearly $100 million from the current budget for the entire U.S. Attorney community, affecting every district and reducing the number of cases they can prosecute. The Justice Department anticipates U.S. Attorneys’ offices will handle 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases. Fewer affirmative civil and criminal cases will affect our ability to ensure that justice is served and impact funds owed to the government.”
The effects would also be serious on a personal level for the thousands of DOJ employees who would face temporary furloughs or “other personnel actions,” as Holder put it in a memo to all DOJ employees on Feb. 7. If the sequester does become a reality, it will not cause doors at the DOJ to be locked. Rather, the affected employees will be given 30 to 60 days’ notice, depending on whatever union contracts apply to them.
Nor, as the DOJ has made clear before, will the Bureau of Prisons simply open its doors and let convicts walk out if the sequester comes to pass. (On the other hand, hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants have been released by the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration agency in anticipation of budget cuts, as The New York Times reported.)
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, asserted that Holder is taking a “sky is falling” approach that just may be an attempt to conceal wasteful and ineffective spending across the vast DOJ bureaucracy.
In a letter to Holder on Monday, Grassley said the $1.6 billion cut looming over the DOJ budget amounts to about 5 percent of the DOJ budget request for the current fiscal year. The senator said Holder had provided “selective information…regarding the true impact these budget cuts,” notably in a letter three weeks ago to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who heads the Appropriations Committee. (FBI Director Robert Mueller also wrote to Mikulski, telling the senator that the cuts would mean cutting 2285 positions from the bureau, including 775 agents, through compulsory furloughs and hiring freezes.)
Grassley complained that Holder’s letter to Mikulski, while outlining the trims that would be necessary for the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Tobacco and other DOJ sections, “failed to indicate the impact sequester would have on a number of other components within the Department, namely the National Security Division, Criminal Division, Civil Rights Division, and the Office of Justice Programs—among many others.”
“What impact, if any, will sequester have on conference spending by the Department?” Grassley asked. “Will there be a blanket prohibition on conferences in lieu of furloughs? If not, why not?” At another point, he asked, “What impact, if any, will sequester have on executive travel via executive jets operated by the Department?” (Grassley has been concerned about Holder’s use of FBI jets – see Main Justice’s previous report.)
It is still possible, of course, that congressional Republicans and Democrats and President Barack Obama can reach a deal to head off the budget cuts — or at least postpone the day of reckoning yet again.