U.S. Justice Department officials took heat over agency’s expenses Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where legislators criticized grant programs and questioned spending on air travel and prison purchases during the tight fiscal climate in Washington.
At a House subcommittee hearing titled “Luxury Jets and Empty Prisons,” Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), testified that DOJ “has been one of the worst offenders.” Grants continue to be managed poorly as the department does not evaluate whether certain programs overlap or whether programs should be consolidated, Coburn said in prepared remarks.
That criticism and others leveled at the Justice Department are not exactly new. “In fact, for the 11th consecutive year, the DOJ Inspector General continues to include grant management on its list of ‘Top 10 Management Challenges’ facing the DOJ,” said Coburn, who puts out a “Wastebook” every year highlighting duplicative and overlapping government spending.
Lee Lofthus, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for administration, testified that those grant programs are created by Congress, and are often not as duplicative as the grant names might suggest.
House Republicans have long criticized DOJ for purchasing a prison in Thomson, Ill., a theme struck by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. The Thomson prison was a “white elephant,” Sensenbrenner said. He questioned why the department has five prisons sitting empty and asked whether the agency intended to sell them. “That isn’t very efficient, you’ve got to admit that,” Sensenbrenner said.
Lofthus said two of those prisons have begun taking inmates and are 10 percent full, and another is empty because it is still being constructed. The Thomson prison was purchased because the Bureau of Prisons needed the high-security bed space for federal prisons, which is at 52 percent over capacity. “Thomson prison is twice the prison at have the price,” Lofthus said. “This is exactly the thing the department ought to be doing.”
Michael Horowitz, the DOJ inspector general, said the agency could gain from consolidating grant processes, but the costs of prisons are the agency’s most pressing budget concern.
“The federal prison system is consuming an ever-larger portion of the Department’s budget, making safe and secure incarceration increasingly difficult to provide, and threatening to force significant budgetary and programmatic cuts to other DOJ components in the near future,” Horowitz said in prepared remarks.
The other part of the hearing’s title, luxury jets, refers to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that found the Justice Department spent $11.4 million between 2007 and 2011 on "non-mission" travel for attorneys general and FBI directors.
All attorneys general and FBI directors are now "required use" travelers, meaning an executive branch policy says they must use government aircraft for all their travel, including travel for personal reasons, because of security and communications needs, the GAO notes.
The White House today released its proposed 2014 budget, which would fund $27.6 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Justice, a 3 percent increase from the 2012 enacted level. It includes funds to activate recently constructed or acquired prisons, including the one in Thomson, as well as $395 million in new resources to combat gun violence.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is expected to testify on April 18 about the department’s proposed 2014 budget. He is scheduled to appear before the House budget subcommittee.
The department’s full budget request is here.