Del. Eleanor Norton (D-D.C.) suggested at a hearing on Tuesday that budget cuts may have contributed to the Secret Service’s security troubles, saying Congress “has to take some responsibility” for the problems.
The hearing, with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, followed a series of Washington Post articles that revealed shortcomings in the agency’s responses to threats including last month’s White House breach and the 2011 shooting of the executive mansion.
Answering Norton, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said her organization is 550 employees below its “optimal level.”
But GOP lawmakers weren’t buying excuses. “You’re not going to tell us that sequestration is the reason your agents didn’t find evidence” of bullets striking the White House until days after the shooting, said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
“No I am not,” Pierson replied.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) also challenged Norton’s theory, saying the Obama administration last year proposed a budget for the Secret Service that would have reduced the agency’s workforce by 376 employees.
“Do you not think that that creates a cultural problem, when you’re seeking reductions and you’re here testifying today that you have too few people?” Meadows asked.
“I do see the difficulty in trying to operate a critical federal agency in times of fiscal constraint,” Pierson said.
Norton and the Republicans both make reasonable points. The government-wide budget cuts known as sequestration require virtually all agencies to make do with less, and some of them have resorted to personnel reductions to meet their cost-cutting targets.
But despite the belt tightening, Congress last year gave the Secret Service more money than it asked for, due to concerns that the amount of funding that the administration originally requested wouldn’t be enough for the agency to do its job effectively.
An appropriations committee said in a report last year that the administration’s initial request would have a “severely detrimental impact on the Secret Service’s protection and investigation missions.”
So sequestration has forced agencies to make painful cuts, but it’s hard to take Pierson’s staffing concerns seriously when lawmakers gave her agency more money than the administration asked for.
With all these issues mind, let’s take a look at the Secret Service’s funding and staffing levels during President Obama’s time in office.
As the graph above shows, the Secret Service is operating this year with a budget larger than at any time except 2012, when the last presidential election took place — Secret Service spending tends to rise dramatically during those years, since the agency has to protect both the president and the president’s challenger.
It’s also worth noting that Secret Service funding was up in 2011, the year of the White House shooting.
As for personnel levels, the graph below shows that Secret Service staffing has dropped dramatically since 2011. It’s unclear to what extent the workforce reductions are tied to funding levels, since the agency’s budget spiked in the same year that personnel levels started to plummet.