Why is Congress Reforming a Program That Has No Funding?

The Asset Forfeiture Fund is self-financed from seizures of property owned by criminals and it helps law enforcement agencies pay for resources and officers, so why is Congress cutting it as part of a budget deal?

Chuck Cantebury, National President of the Fraternal Order of PoliceChuck Cantebury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police

Late last year, Congress passed and the president signed a historic two-year budget deal that mapped out the fiscal priorities of the federal government. In order to pay for the new budget deal, the legislation imposed a permanent recision, or cut, in the Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) managed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The AFF is funded by federal task forces, in which many state and local agencies participate, that seize the assets of criminals and their organizations. The proceeds of these seizures are then shared with those agencies participating in these task forces through an equitable sharing program.

The budget deal imposed a cut of $746 million dollars on the AFF–a considerable sum. While a significant blow, the cut did not immediately jeopardize the equitable sharing program. However, the recent omnibus appropriations act—which was negotiated behind closed doors and passed before anyone had the opportunity to read the massive bill—contained an additional recision of $458 million. This reduction was completely unforeseen by the U.S. Department of Justice and the law enforcement community, and it has completely disrupted the program.

This $1.2 billion cut made in the span of a single month to the AFF has forced the DOJ to temporarily suspend the equitable sharing program. The department is looking within to find the resources to keep the program operating and will issue a statement and guidance to its state and local partners in the near future.

What has happened here is that Congress has turned the AFF into its personal piggy bank and left law enforcement to pick up the pieces. The equitable sharing program is effective and provides—or in this case provided—the funds that allow local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to cooperate jointly and go after the "big fish"—large, organized criminal enterprises smuggling firearms, narcotics, and/or people to generate considerable assets. The asset forfeiture program is a deterrent to criminal activity as well as a punitive measure and, best of all, we are able to reinvest these seized resources back into our law enforcement agencies and improve public safety.

In 2015, the Fraternal Order of Police was at the forefront of the effort to defeat Congressional efforts to end the equitable sharing program, which could result in permitting criminals and their organizations to better protect their ill-gotten gains. In fact, we were the only law enforcement organization to testify before Congress in support of the equitable sharing program. Other law enforcement organizations were mostly absent from this debate, and the FOP faced considerable heat and pressure from legislators on both sides of the aisle who were focused on ending the equitable sharing program. But we also had friends. We worked with allies like Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to slow down these efforts and we will continue to work with the DOJ and other law enforcement stakeholder groups to find some way—any way—to keep this program afloat.

This Congress continues to inflict terrible cuts and reductions to state and local law enforcement agencies, compromising our homeland and hometown security at a time when the threat level is on the rise. The cuts to the AFF have the potential for dire consequences. Federal task forces, whose success depends on the participation of state and local law enforcement, will begin to collapse as these agencies will no longer be able to contribute manpower and resources to these efforts if there is no way to recoup part of the cost of that participation. And that could lead to even greater threats from organized criminals and terrorists.

It's awfully tough to make a good case to reform a program that was stripped of its funding. The FOP suggests that Congress start to work with law enforcement and not against us.

Chuck Canterbury is the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

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