Last week, the pending closure of Johnstown’s National Drug Intelligence Center became official, as years of fighting to keep it open came to an end. It’s easy to place blame – the Bush administration, Republicans in Congress, the Obama administration, the Department of Justice – but it’s far more difficult to understand how we got to where we are today.
NDIC’s troubles began in February 2005, when President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2006 budget request proposed $17 million to facilitate “the shutdown of the center and transfer of its responsibilities and activities to other Department of Justice elements.”
As we know, Bush didn’t succeed at shutting down the NDIC in 2006. Nor would he succeed in his three subsequent budget requests, because the late Congressman John Murtha was able to use his seniority and position on the House Appropriations Committee to successfully thwart Bush’s efforts.
Murtha was attacked vehemently by congressional Republicans and anti-earmark organizations, who called his ability to save NDIC “a pork scandal.” Unfortunately, for every year that Murtha was able to save NDIC, the negative press, and its target as a symbol of “wasteful spending,” only grew larger.
Fast forward to the spring of 2009; President Obama’s first budget request provided $44 million to continue NDIC’s operations in fiscal year 2010. He requested $44 million for NDIC again in fiscal year 2011. But, at the end of 2010, Democrats lost the majority in the House of Representatives and deferred the 2011 budget negotiations to the new Congress.
In February 2011, House Republicans unveiled H.R. 1, the Fiscal Year 2011 Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, which cut the president’s funding request for NDIC to $34 million. During consideration of this legislation, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) offered an amendment to eliminate the $34 million. The House passed Flake’s amendment with all but two members of the Pennsylvania delegation voting against it.
Thankfully, H.R. 1 was defeated in the Senate, and after a few more months of negotiations, Congress eventually passed another bill, which provided $34 million for NDIC in fiscal year 2011.
In the meantime, while Congress was months behind on passing bills to keep the government operating in 2011, the president was preparing his fiscal year 2012 budget request to Congress. During this period, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and I had a conference call with the president’s budget director to convince him that NDIC should remain in Johnstown. In February 2011, the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget request was released, and in it was $25 million for the NDIC to continue operations in Johnstown.
In May 2011, Flake again offered an amendment to close NDIC, and again, the House passed his amendment.
Then, in July, the House Appropriations Committee released its fiscal year 2012 Department of Justice budget, and Republicans succeeded in removing all funds for NDIC.
In September, Casey, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Hollidaysburg), and I had a meeting with Department of Justice officials to discuss the department’s plans for NDIC in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
Fortunately, because of the efforts of Casey and Toomey, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its fiscal year 2012 Department of Justice budget, and included $20 million for NDIC.
When House and Senate members met to reach agreement on the budget, House Republicans came to the negotiating table with only two options: Zero money and the immediate closure of NDIC at the end of 2011, or $20 million with requirements to close the center in 2012. Understanding that funding with closure restrictions was better than no funding at all, Senate Democrats receded. The conferenced bill, unveiled in November, included $20 million for the NDIC with specific restrictions that “funds provided will be used only for necessary expenses related to the closing of the NDIC.”
This appropriations bill was attached to another must-pass resolution to avoid a government shutdown the following day. This wasn’t the bill we wanted, but it was the one that was dealt to us. I voted for it to avoid a government shutdown, and because I was optimistic we could work with the administration to keep some component of NDIC, and some jobs, in Johnstown.
Immediately after the passage of this bill, Casey, Toomey and I worked with the Justice Department to convey NDIC’s national importance and to show that keeping future operations in Johnstown made financial sense. Three weeks ago, we had another conversation with Justice officials to further press the issue.
But, unfortunately after months of petitioning the department, the decision was made last week to forgo keeping any future operations in Johnstown. I believe that this decision was misguided and wrong.
The decision to close NDIC will save taxpayers nothing, not one cent. And the critics who have fought relentlessly for its closure will have succeeded in doing just one thing – moving local jobs to Washington, D.C.
We should be outraged.
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be working to help NDIC employees find jobs both within the Johnstown community and elsewhere. If you are hiring, or know someone who is, please contact my office.
Congressman Mark Critz represents the 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of Cambria and Somerset counties.