An independent panel investigating the recent failures of the Secret Service told Congress on Thursday that agents were trained at “unacceptable” levels, drawing outrage from lawmakers who mostly agreed on the need to overhaul the agency.
The panel, which issued its initial findings in December, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the Secret Service needed outside leadership and a better grasp of its own budget to succeed. As a starting point, the panelists said, the Secret Service should hire 200 new uniformed officers and 85 special agents.
The hiring spree would mark a 4.5 percent increase in the overall workforce of the agency, which currently employs 6,300 individuals, according to Office of Personnel Management data.
Some Republican lawmakers were hesitant to point all the blame at inadequate funding, noting Congress has provided the Secret Service with more than the Obama administration’s request in each of the last two fiscal years. Members of the U.S. Secret Service Protective Mission Panel -- created after a fence jumper gained access to the White House and a slew of additional Secret Service scandals -- agreed the insufficient budget request illustrates the agency’s management failures.
Panelists said the agency should start from scratch with new leadership -- Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned in September and Deputy Director A.T. Smith announced this week he is transferring out of the agency -- and with a “zero-based” budget to assess its true needs.
“No organization is perfect,” said Mark Filip, one of the panelists. “It’s not a weakness to acknowledge there are problems. Accept them and move forward.”
Former Deputy Attorney General and panelist Thomas Perrelli said the Secret Service must “start from the beginning” to define its mission and determine the funding required to carry it out. He added that total is likely to increase from current levels, and the 285 suggested new hires might just be a “down payment” on the number actually needed.
Currently, the panelists said, Secret Service employees are stretched too thin. The resulting decrease in training and increase in forced overtime has hurt the morale of the agency’s workforce.
The Secret Service’s uniformed officers spent an average of just 25 minutes in training in fiscal 2013, down significantly from years prior. Officers at other law enforcement agencies spent as much as one-quarter of their time training. In a typical year, the Secret Service offers special agents eight training classes annually; in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 combined, it offered a total of just one class.
“We all are in agreement the levels are unacceptably low,” said Danielle Gray, another panelist.
Some lawmakers were unwilling to accept those explanations for the dropping satisfaction of the workforce.
“I’m sure they’re all nice people,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., of Secret Service employees. “But they have to realize they are very lucky to have their jobs.” He added federal law enforcement officers are higher paid than their local counterparts, who “are out there fighting the real crime, the daily, day-to-day crime that everyone wants fought.” Duncan added: “When I hear about low morale in the Secret Service, they ought to be ashamed [of themselves].”
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said Secret Service workers should take their cues from pop culture. “Did these guys not watch the movies?” Carter asked. “Those people are really excited about becoming Secret Service agents.”
Overall, members of the oversight committee expressed bipartisan support for reforming the agency. Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the Secret Service is facing a “vortex of vulnerability,” but voiced optimism he could work with Democrats to plug the gaps.
Chaffetz and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., both supported a move to take currency and counterfeiting out of the Secret Service’s investigatory purview, with the chairman saying they could jointly introduce a bill to that effect soon.
Some of the changes must come internally, lawmakers and panelists agreed. Management must remove a “culture of fear” and improve human resources practices to get the agency back on track, they said. “This is not just any organization,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “This is U.S. Secret Service. It used to be one of the most respected agencies in our government.”
This article originally appeared in Government Executive.