WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is cutting back armed air marshals but increasing funding to deal with a surge in unaccompanied immigrant children. It's boosting funding for gun background checks and resisting tea party cuts to economic development programs. Military readiness is taking a hit to pay for more ships and airplanes.
It's trade-off time on Capitol Hill.
As Congress stands at an impasse on most major issues, it is waist deep in annual spending bills that offer lawmakers secondary opportunities to make policy.
But with agency budgets frozen on average, in order to add money for procurement of Coast Guard ships or to ease a backlog of unprocessed rape kits, the money has to come from a program that somebody else treasures.
"You have to rob Peter's pocket to pay Paul," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said. "For example, they're willing to add money for the (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) for guns but they want to take it out of the National Science Foundation salaries. That's tough for me. I've got the National Science Foundation in my district."
Moran was referring to an amendment to a spending bill on the House floor for the departments of Justice and Commerce and federal science programs. The amendment by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., would direct $19.5 million more to the NICS budget and came less than a week after a troubled young man killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara. The amendment was adopted by a 260-145 vote Thursday evening.
Thursday's moves came a day after a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a $39 billion measure for the Department of Homeland Security. The measure essentially represents a budget freeze, which meant something had to get whacked to finance the $77 million the panel added to President Barack Obama's $868 million request to care for immigrant children who make their way across U.S. borders without their parents.
The number of children found trying to cross the Mexican border without parents has skyrocketed in recent years, with an estimated 60,000 or more unaccompanied children coming into custody this year — an almost 10-fold increase since 2011.
Many of the children, who often land in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, have fled their home countries because of widespread gang and drug cartel violence. In many cases, the children have at least one parent or other relatives living in the United States, and the government often reunites children caught at the border with parents or relatives living in the U.S. illegally.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told lawmakers Thursday that the spike in unaccompanied minors found at the border is a direct result of deteriorating conditions in Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
"It is being driven largely by the circumstances in those countries, in those Central American countries," Johnson told the House Judiciary Committee. "The levels of violence, the levels of poverty."
To pay for additional money to cope with the crisis of immigrant children, lawmakers had to cut elsewhere.
Enter the federal air marshals, the armed agents who provide protection on an unknown number of flights. The government employed just a handful before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and now employs thousands, though the exact number is secret. But they're increasingly seen as one layer — and an expensive one — in an increasingly sophisticated web of protections for air travelers.
New marshals were hired in droves after 9/11, but other layers of protection — including reinforced cockpit doors and more sophisticated risk-based technology and screening procedures — mean that fewer air marshals are needed. So the House panel cut the marshals budget by $208 million, more than one-fourth.
"It is an expensive mode of defense," Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said. "The level can safely be brought down given the other protections we've put in place. The hardened cockpit door, lots of things that have meant that the air marshals are just one facet of a whole array of defenses."
Also Thursday, House Republicans released a $570 billion Pentagon spending bill packed with its own set of trade-offs. The measure protected the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and EA-18 "Growler" attack aircraft from cuts but hit operations and maintenance accounts responsible for military readiness by $1.4 billion.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.