With Police Budgets Drawing Scrutiny, We Need to Take a Closer Look at Congress’s Cops

This article appeared in The Hill (Online) on July 6, 2020.
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There’s at least one jurisdiction where it makes a lot of sense to “defund the police.” Congress’s personal police force is the poster child for government spending run amok.

In 1837, the United States Capitol Police (USCP) started as a quartet of security guards patrolling the domed United States Capitol Building and 60 surrounding acres. After almost two centuries of unmitigated mission creep, the USCP now numbers 2,000 officers, who police more than 1,200 acres in the heart of the nation’s capital.

A comparison to other forces brings the USCP’s bloat into stark relief. Take a city like Atlanta, which encompasses more than 130 square miles. Atlanta’s police department has a budget of about $220 million. Now consider the USCP, which patrols two square miles. Its budget is about $460 million—nearly twice the budget of Atlanta’s department!

Detroit, Minneapolis, and Oakland are among the manifold municipalities whose police budget is dwarfed by what the nation’s lawmakers throw at the Capitol Police.

Making matters worse, the big spending on the Capitol Police is duplicative. The USCP has exclusive authority over only the Capitol Grounds (about 270 acres). For the rest—about 75 percent of its total jurisdiction—the USCP serves as a junior partner to the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.

More than 80 percent of the USCP’s reported incidents occurred within dual‐​jurisdictional areas, according to an analysis of weekly arrest summaries by First Branch Forecast. At face value, it makes little sense for Congress’s personal police force to be making drug busts at the local Amtrak station, something which occurred 50 times last year!

Unfortunately, the Capitol Police is shrouded in secrecy, so no one knows the extent of its wasteful spending. Because the USCP is part of the legislative branch, public disclosure laws don’t apply. Earlier this month, for example, Roll Call reported about how the USCP had denied a journalistic inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act.

Notwithstanding its puny jurisdiction, the Capitol Police’s runaway spending is a problem of national scope. It’s not simply a matter of squandered taxpayer money. Of far greater concern, spending on the USCP has been crowding out spending on lawmaking and oversight—you know, Congress’s actual business.

The problem is that USCP is funded directly out of Congress’s budget. For some reason, Congress treats its own budget far different than it treats the national budget. For the latter, lawmakers are uninhibited in their spending—our total national debt, after all, is almost $25 trillion (and counting). But when it comes to spending on themselves, lawmakers pinch pennies in a lame attempt to virtue‐​signal their supposed budget discipline.

The upshot is that USCP’s budget has increased precipitously, while Congress’s overall budget remained relatively flat. And that’s why Capitol Police’s extravagant spending comes at the expense of Congress’s capacity to function.

Over the last decade, for example, spending on committees—the workhorses of Congress—has decreased by 35 percent, while USCP spending increased about 26 percent.

The solution is obvious. Congress must return the Capitol Police to its roots. The USCP’s proper purpose is to ensure the safety of lawmakers while they conduct business on the Capitol grounds. This is a straightforward job. The department should be called Capitol “Security” not Capitol “Police.”

Accordingly, Congress should limit the USCP’s authority to only those spaces where it has exclusive jurisdiction. This would end the needless duplication of police work already handled by municipal officers.

By drastically reducing the Capitol Police’s footprint, Congress would similarly reduce the size of the USCP and, therefore, its budget. Ideally, lawmakers could invest these “savings” into its own diminishing capacity.