Senators Question Cost of New Police Radios

Senate appropriators questioned the cost of a new radio system for the Capitol Police on Thursday, promising to revisit the issue before Congress approves a spending provision that includes about $71 million for the project.
“To me, $71 million just seems way out of line,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse. “That just seems very, very expensive. I’d like to look at the requirements you have in mind.”
The hearing held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch marked the second round of questioning in two days for Capitol Police officials, who recently asked the White House to stick funds for the radio replacement in President Barack Obama’s supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years, the department has lobbied Congress to fund its effort to replace outdated and unreliable radios. The 25-year-old radios, it says, are beginning to fail and are incompatible with the equipment of local federal agencies, hindering the department’s ability to protect the Capitol.
On Wednesday, the request faced House appropriators, who expressed concerns that the project would escalate in price.
Thursday brought questions from Senators who thought the price tag was already too high. Subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said after the hearing that he would be looking into the cost because of the concerns of fellow panel members.
But he added that he supported the supplemental as a quick way to fund the project and keep it on schedule, rather than risking the money getting tied up in a continuing resolution.
Right now, the total cost stands at nearly $100 million, including $10 million Congress already appropriated and an estimated $8 million to $16 million down the road.
That will pay for 2,400 encrypted radios that will work in the Capitol’s tunnels and garages. The current radio system is in analog, meaning it fails in some areas of the Capitol and is open to anyone with a store-bought scanner.
At Thursday’s hearing, Pryor was most vocal about the high price of the radios. But ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also grilled Morse on other aspects of his fiscal year 2010 budget. Including the costs of the radios, Morse asked for a more than 30 percent increase from his current budget. That includes adding 89 officers to a force of almost 1,800 — 13 of which would beef up the department’s counter-terrorism unit.
“It seems to me that at a time when we don’t need to be adding more and more and more in terms of staffing, we’re doing that,” Murkowski said.
But Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said the only way to decrease officers was to close doors — something Congress has been unwilling to do thus far. The new Capitol Visitor Center, he said, “resulted in more open doors.”
“There’s a lot of ways to save officers here and we can close a lot of doors to do that,” he said. “But there’s never been the will.”
Members also questioned Gainer and Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson on their requests for fiscal year 2010.
They had asked for far less than the police department, with Gainer requesting a 10 percent increase and Ericksen requesting a 7 percent rise.
Much of that focused on technology. Ericksen’s office is beginning to update the payroll system, asking for $2 million to start. Gainer, meanwhile, asked for more money to ensure the Senate’s technology — from BlackBerrys to computers — is secure.
But the Senate subcommittee made it clear that most legislative branch agencies won’t get all they requested. Collectively, they asked for a 15 percent increase.
“I think it is important that we exercise fiscal discipline and that we lead by example,” Murkowski said. “I’m not convinced that 15 percent does set a good example.”

By:  Emily Yehle