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Congress just averted a shutdown by agreeing to keep federal spending at current levels for a few more weeks. But look under the hood of that agreement and you’ll find lots of money was moved around within agencies in ways that affect how they operate. One potential ripple effect: the Department of Justice may find itself paring back its efforts to hold hundreds of Jan. 6 insurrectionists accountable for their actions.
At first glance, this may not seem like not such a big deal, given the stream of headlines of convictions secured against Jan. 6 players. Maybe you remember the QAnon Shaman copping a plea deal; he served 27 months of a 41-month sentence—and this week announced he would run for Congress. But hundreds of others who were part of the armed mob who tried to short-circuit Congress’ duty to ratify Donald Trump’s loss have yet to face any repercussions. Officials have said more than 2,500 people breached the Capitol on Jan. 6; other estimates put the number of potential defendants as high as 3,000.
As of Nov 1., just 1,202 people have been charged, according to the DOJ. The FBI says it has video of 13 suspects who violently assaulted federal officers and two more who attacked journalists, and agents are still trying to identify members of both groups.
So what does that have to do with the short-term spending bill Congress just passed to avoid a shutdown? Well, it includes a 12% cut in funding for federal prosecutors. That number was also almost one-fifth lower than what the DOJ said it needed. Soon after Jan. 6 in 2021, when the agency said it was preparing to handle an “increasing number of cases and defendants” related to domestic terrorism, a Democratic-controlled Congress upped their funding for federal prosecutors to $2.8 billion. Last year, that fell to $2.6 billion. And now, it looks like House Republicans managed to carve that down to $2.3 billion over the next year, a reduction likely to mean hundreds of fewer lawyers and other workers available to take on the department’s caseload.
And as some House Republicans complain that new House Speaker Mike Johnson rolled over for Democrats by not demanding more cuts, official talking points from the GOP caucus list all the ways they pushed their policy goals through this spending bill, including, right there on page six, that they managed to roll back DOJ’s reach of prosecutions. That suggests the agency will have a tough time restoring that funding when it’s time to try to pass a longer-term budget early next year.
This may all seem like an accountant’s fever dream but a snooze for most Americans. But there are real consequences for the ability of federal prosecutors to get the job done and send a message to those who cheered on such a dark day in American history.
As anyone who spends their time around law enforcement will tell you, trials are costly, not just in money but also time. And defendants in these cases are guaranteed the right to a speedy trial. Without a bench of seasoned prosecutors standing by to promptly handle these cases, the defense lawyers can credibly argue their clients are being denied just due process. Not to mention the courts themselves, which don’t exactly have a lot of slack in courtrooms that are scheduled in six-minute intervals. Which is also why many of these cases lay languishing without accountability.
Complicating all this is a ticking stopwatch that haunts rank-and-file prosecutors. The standard statute of limitations for most federal offenses is five years, or 60 months. It’s been 34 months since the attempted insurrection at the Capitol. For the math-challenged among us, that means half of the window has passed, and as many as two-thirds of potential targets of prosecution are not even in the system. While those who are—including the 683 guilty pleas and 127 convictions at contested trials—have cases that still require DOJ resources to see through.
For a party that prides itself as the one linking arms with law-and-order hardliners, excusing insurrectionists who caused almost $2.9 million in damage to the Capitol is the height of hypocrisy. And more broadly, choking off cash to a department that is a cornerstone of protecting democracy is not a good look for either party. Yet, when given the chance, House Republicans not only cut the budget for federal prosecutors by one-eighth, they then told their colleagues that it should be a point of pride.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.