Justice Department, FBI seem at odds over budget

The firing of FBI Director James Comey isn’t the only thing top Justice Department officials and FBI leaders disagree about at the moment.

They also don’t see eye to eye about something else always of great import in Washington: money.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe have presented starkly different views to Congress about how President Donald Trump’s budget would impact the FBI’s operations.

To hear McCabe describe it, Trump’s budget would require significant belt-tightening across the law enforcement agency.

“It will certainly impact us in many ways. It is a broad and deep reduction that will touch every program. it will touch headquarters. It will touch our field offices,” McCabe told a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday. “It is a reduction that is not possible to take entirely against vacancies. It’s a reduction that will touch every description of employee within the FBI. We will lose agent positions. We will lose analyst positions and, of course, professional staff.”

For his part, Rosenstein sounded much more sanguine about the Justice Department’s budget, insisting that areas such as national security and violent crime would not see any cuts.

“I believe that if you look at the budget, we are not cutting the critical areas — violent crime, terrorism, the areas that you’ve raised are areas where there will be no cuts, cybercrime, all those areas,” Rosenstein said at a parallel Senate hearing, under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “And so the effort in this budget, as I understand it, is to reduce only in areas that are not critical to those operations.”

Rosenstein also said the number of FBI agents would rise by 150 under the Trump budget to 12,484. (The last data on the FBI website has the agent ranks at about 13,500.)

The deputy attorney general’s comments were in line with those of Justice Department budget officials, who told reporters last month that the only significant reductions in the department’s budget were deletion of one-time construction costs, funding for cyclical events like the presidential conventions, and the termination of a handful of programs

“Any decreases are in one-time costs for nonessential line items, such as construction costs that are not needed in FY2018,” a Justice spokesman said.

Part of the disparity may be derived from idiosyncrasies of the Trump budget, which was based on funding levels in the continuing resolution passed in April and not the final, full-year omnibus appropriations bill passed in May.

In any event, congressional staff say that in real-world numbers, the FBI is looking at a cut of nearly $45 million from current funding levels of about $8.7 billion for salaries and expenses. That reduction is drawing concern from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

In addition to Graham’s questions about the cuts, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) — who heads up the relevant House appropriations subcommittee — expressed worry about reducing the FBI’s budget.

“The request appears to leave the FBI with a hole to fill,” Culberson said Wednesday.

Budget documents show almost 2,100 positions being cut from the FBI under the Trump proposal, but only about a third of those — about 650 — seem to be jobs that are currently filled. The rest are long-unfunded or never funded positions being eliminated across government, slots Rosenstein referred to as “ghost positions.”

According to the budget data, about 470 FBI jobs are being added, including 150 agent positions, but that does not appear to be enough to cover the eliminated positions.

At the Senate hearing last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said it’s bizarre that with all Trump’s rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and violence, he’s trying to cut the FBI. Leahy suggested the budget may reflect the president’s irritation with the ongoing investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 election and any potential connection to the Trump campaign.

“The president’s budget request for the Justice Department is abysmal,” Leahy said. “Ironically, in a budget touted as tough on crime, the president cuts funding for FBI operations and investigations by $44 million, we know we have to move ahead with the new FBI headquarters, there’s no funds for that. I have my own suspicions about why the president may seek cuts to FBI operations and personnel.”

Whatever the Trump team may be trying to do with the FBI’s budget, it looks like Congress may not go along.

When Culberson asked how congressional budgeteers could help the FBI, McCabe again insisted his agency was facing cuts and asked the lawmakers to consider reversing them.

“The most valuable thing would be to try to restore the reductions that we are likely to sustain,” the acting FBI chief replied.

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