Secret Service scandal sparks rare bipartisanship

 

October 3, 2014

In this Feb. 16, 2012, file photo. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee member Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., gestures during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The scandal that’s rocked the once-proud Secret Service and raised questions about the president’s safety has also produced rare bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill. Connolly, an oversight committee Democrat, said: “If you closed your eyes you would not know any difference between the Democratic concern and the Republican concern. They are one and the same.”

WASHINGTON — The scandal that's rocked the once-proud Secret Service and raised questions about the president's safety has also produced rare bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill.

With a month more to go in bitterly contested congressional election campaigns, Democratic and Republican lawmakers who usually are at odds have been surprised to find themselves largely agreeing on a response to the agency's recent extraordinary security breaches, including a knife-carrying intruder who made it all the way into the White House East Room.

There were bipartisan calls for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson's resignation this week, and once it was announced Wednesday, bipartisan agreement on the need for a wide-ranging independent investigation. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both joined in that call.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which hosted Pierson at a hearing where her tepid and inconsistent responses infuriated all sides, are drafting a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson outlining their recommendations for the investigation — an unusual moment of agreement on a panel notorious for its partisan sparring.

Republicans typically critical of President Barack Obama have been just as full-throated as Democrats in voicing concerns about his safety. And members of both parties are pledging vigorous efforts to ensure that Pierson's resignation ushers in wholesale culture changes at the Secret Service, where morale has been battered. There are complaints of personnel shortages and the steady drip of embarrassing revelations has tarnished the agency's once-sterling reputation.

"Whether it's in public or privately, I can tell you that the bipartisan effort, and the importance of making sure that our president is protected, is truly refreshing," said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican on the oversight panel. "We will continue to hold hearings, continue to work together."

In this Oct. 11, 2009 file photo, Secret Service Agent Joseph Clancy, right, walks behind President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their, children Sasha, right, and Malia, second from left, walk back to the White House after attending St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned Wednesday, a day after bitingly critical questioning by Congress about a White House security breach. There had been increasing calls for her departure during the day. Pierson will be replaced by Clancy, a former special agent in charge of the president's protective detail who retired in 2011.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, an oversight committee Democrat, said: "If you closed your eyes you would not know any difference between the Democratic concern and the Republican concern. They are one and the same."

Unlike with other scandals that have divided Washington of late, from the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, to IRS targeting of conservative political groups, Republicans aren't trying to pin this one on Obama. Indeed, the most high-profile mission of the Secret Service — to protect the president — puts Obama in a delicate position when it comes to criticizing the agency or calling for reforms, leaving Congress as the key overseer.

That responsibility, along with the shock value of some of the revelations and Pierson's clearly bungled response, appears to have produced something of a bipartisan truce against scoring political points over the issue.

At the same time, Pierson's short tenure leading the agency — she took over 18 months ago when the previous director, Mark Sullivan, retired after a scandal involving Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes while on detail in Colombia — left her without deep relationships on Capitol Hill to fall back on when the going got tough, aides of both parties said. She had no protector, and lawmakers of both parties felt free to attack.

Now the agency must rebuild. The Obama administration has called for an independent panel to scrutinize the Sept. 19 incident in which the man with a knife jumped over a White House fence and eluded security agents until he was deep inside the executive mansion, as well as related issues, and make recommendations for a new director. Those conclusions are due Dec. 15.

In the meantime, the deputy director of the Secret Service, A.T. Smith, will be in charge until Monday, when Joseph Clancy, a former head of the service's presidential protective division, takes the helm on an interim basis.

But presidential security must continue. Thursday the president was in Illinois for a speech on the economy, and uniformed officers patrolled the grounds of the White House — including the new, second layer of temporary fencing put up the day after the fence-jumper made it inside the building.


Associated Press