Senator Collins Questions Administration’s Request to Hire Just 4 New Drug Enforcement Agents Amid Opioid Crisis
By contrast, DOJ is requesting 1,200 new attorneys
Senator Collins also criticized DOJ’s proposed cuts to programs with strong bipartisan support, including one that clears rape kit backlogs
Washington, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins, the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, questioned Attorney General Merrick Garland at a hearing to review the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) budget request for fiscal year 2024.
Despite the growing opioid crisis that claimed the lives of 716 Mainers last year and more than 100,000 Americans annually, the Biden Administration is only proposing four new special agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration. By contrast, DOJ is requesting 1,200 new attorneys. Senator Collins asked the Attorney General to explain this imbalance and urged him to prioritize stopping the flow of fentanyl across our border.
Senator Collins was also critical of the Department of Justice’s proposal to sharply curtail funding for programs to help clear the rape kit backlog, help veterans, prevent hate crimes, and address the opioid crisis.
Mr. Attorney General, let me begin by telling you that I appreciate the work that you described to Senator Moran, in working with the Mexican government to combat the very violent cartels that are smuggling drugs that are poisoning our children. In the State of Maine, a record 716 people lost their lives last year as a result of drug overdoses, and 80% of those deaths were linked to fentanyl. Nationwide, there were more overdose deaths last year than all homicides and traffic accident fatalities combined. So, this is obviously a very serious problem. The Drug Enforcement Administration is the agency that is focused on disrupting the cartels and the trafficking networks that are flooding our country with fentanyl and poisoning our children for profit. And that's why I'm puzzled by the President's budget. In a year in which the President is requesting almost 1,200 new attorneys for the Department of Justice, that same budget only requests 4 new DEA special agents. And that does not seem to me to be commensurate with the challenges posed by the cartels and trafficking networks. To give you another example, and I'll make this the question, why is the department putting a greater focus on hiring 166 anti-trust attorneys than special agents to interdict dangerous drugs?
Attorney General Garland:
So, I don't think if you compare the budget requests that we have for the anti-trust division, trying to get the number, but it's nowhere near what we're asking for DEA, which is $3.3 billion. The total number of new agents is actually 131. We got some money at the end of FY23. We haven't been able to hire the agents yet. So, the total, between FY23 And FY24, will be 131. But we are also adding a total of 216 positions for drug fighting, including 50 diversion investigators, and 35 intelligence analysts. So, we have a substantial number of DEA agents, and we're looking at, you know, a base already of $3.3 billion. We're asking for a $171 million increase, a 5.5% increase, in their overall ability to fight narcotics, and this includes an increase of $73 million for diversion control. I feel deeply the same concern that you have about the consequences of fentanyl. It is, as a DEA administrator points out, like playing Russian roulette if you get one of these pills, a 6 in 10 chance that it will kill you, and the vicious cartels, which could care less about their 'customers.' That's why I've myself traveled repeatedly to Mexico. That's why I continue to meet in the United States with the Mexican senior security officials. It's why I've met with the Attorney General of Mexico three times. And in each case, what we're trying to do is energize them to battle the cartels, energize them to help us extradite the leaders and to take down the networks, and energize them to take down the labs. So, I don't think that anybody looks at the amount of money we're spending overall, for DEA, could think we didn't care about this issue. This is an issue of enormous importance to the country.
And let me say that I know that you personally care deeply about this problem. But when I look at the budget, even though I realize we did authorize 121 new agents last year, I'm talking about this year's budget. And when I see just four new DEA agents—I realize there are some [intelligence analysts] that you are proposing—but it just seems like a real imbalance compared to the almost 1,200 new attorneys.
But let me move on to another issue where there are steep cuts in a number of important programs that have always enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. And that includes grants to support the NICS system to ensure efficient, effective background checks, grants to address the rape kit backlog, and grants to support victims of trafficking. The budget even proposes a 60% grant cut to the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And once again, perplexing to me, given that we're in the midst of this opioid crisis, the budget proposes cuts to drug treatment courts, veterans treatment courts, prescription drug monitoring programs, and residential substance abuse treatment programs. That's also on top of proposed cuts for the anti-meth task force and the Regional Information Sharing Systems, the RISS Program. These are all critical programs that I've long supported. So, it is very difficult for me to understand why the administration would propose cutting funds to help clear the rape kit backlog, to help veterans, to prevent hate crimes, and to address the opioid crisis. My request to you, Mr. Attorney General, is that you work with us and take a second look at these cuts. These grant programs have always been bipartisan. They've been proven effective. And I would argue in many cases, we need them now more than ever.
Attorney General Garland:
We would be very happy to work with you. I think some of the cuts are offset by increases in other programs, which have similar objectives. But I'd be very happy to have our people work with yours.
As the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Collins is pressing forward with Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) to hold subcommittee hearings on the President’s budget. These hearings provide an important opportunity to assess our country’s needs for the coming year and will help guide Senators Collins and Murray’s efforts to write the annual government funding bills.
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