Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice

Former Attorney General Janet Reno would always wax rhapsodic about how much she enjoyed the process of testifying before Congress, and how important and democratic, etc., etc., it all was. Everyone else (including her staff) rolled their eyes, but she actually meant it.

We didn't hear any of that from Attorney General John Ashcroft this week, and his appearance before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee certainly didn't produce huge headlines; it was even buried in the department's own news clips.

But no news didn't necessarily mean good news for the attorney general, either. On several matters, large and small, there were strong indications he (and the administration) may not have it all their way.

FEMA Wins ... Or Does It?

I reported a few weeks ago about the surprises in the Justice Department budget, the most — OK, I'll say it — shocking of which was the loss of the Office of Domestic Preparedness and its $234.5 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Such a thing is, of course, a huge bureaucratic loss. Several senators expressed displeasure with the move. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the ranking member who when he served as chairman was totally engaged in the issue of domestic preparedness, even before Sept. 11, was clearly unhappy.

He asked, if the FBI is going to be the agency in charge of a crisis situation, "recognizing that the first group on the ground is going to be first responders, the local police, fire and medical, shouldn't the FBI or the people who they're dealing with have gone through the Department of Justice training process or a process which gave them entree into the Department of Justice vs. some other agency?"

Ashcroft could only weakly respond that Justice will certainly "continue to do a lot to train." He refused to say what advice he had given the president on the matter but stoutly maintained he supports the decision to strip his own agency of the Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Other senators were also critical, and some pointed out that FEMA has never been a grant-making agency; that it lacks the structure and systems and controls to suddenly start doling out large sums of money.

Chairman Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., was of course most voluble on the subject, and he certainly raised the specter that the change will not pass. He pointedly noted that as recently as October, when the new counterterrorism law was signed, the aid to first responders was still in the Justice orbit.

He even read from the law, "The attorney general shall make grants described in subsections b and c to states and units of local government to improve the ability of state and local law enforcement, fire department and first responders ..."

Warming up, Hollings declared, "I haven't heard anybody in the Congress say this is a good idea, or in law enforcement." He noted earlier testimony from the attorney general that the program was really working, with 46 states having submitted their training plans, and calling it a "miraculous success."

He reminded Ashcroft not to mess with something that's working: "Just to give it to [FEMA Director] Joe Allbaugh, who doesn't know anything about law enforcement!"

Then he warned — and remember, this is the man who holds the purse strings — "That's a nonstarter as far as this subcommittee is concerned."

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