WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday asked lawmakers to support his department's request for more funding to help investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism and beef up civil-rights enforcement, in his first Capitol Hill testimony as the country's top law enforcement officer.
Appearing by videoconference at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing about the Justice Department's budget request, Garland highlighted in his opening statement proposals for a $45 million increase in funding for the FBI for domestic terrorism investigations, and a $40 million increase for U.S. attorneys to manage the ensuing caseloads. He said the department is seeking a "historic investment of one billion dollars" in its Office of Violence Against Women.
He also noted that the department in President Joe Biden's budget request is seeking to increase civil-rights funding by $33 million, and is requesting a $232 million increase in funding to help combat gun violence. The department, he said, intends to offer more grant funding for intervention programs and push for improved background checks and more comprehensive red flag laws.
"Gun deaths continue to occur at a staggering rate in our country," Garland said. "There is more that we can do to make our communities safer. This is both a law enforcement and a public health issue."
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., signaled early on that some of the budget proposals would face resistance -- particularly on gun-control and civil-rights enforcement aimed at police departments.
"I'm concerned that if implemented, this budget would irresponsibly invest taxpayer dollars in initiatives that lack the proper grounding and evidence or insights such as the highly questionable gun buyback schemes," Aderholt said, adding later, "If the Department of Justice truly wants to address gun crime, it must not waste his precious resources on these liberal feel good programs like gun buybacks and incentives for lessening restrictions that infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."
The appearance is Garland's first on Capitol Hill since he was confirmed as attorney general, and while it is ostensibly focused on the budget, he faced wide-ranging questions, including on border security, voter ID laws and marijuana enforcement. He mostly restated his previous public positions. For example, he said he did not feel it was worthwhile for the department to expend resources pursuing marijuana cases against users or in instances where the substance is "regulated by the state," but the department was concerned with "transnational operations of large amounts coming from Mexico."
He appeared by video from the Justice Department, his testimony occasionally interrupted because he was inadvertently muted.
At his confirmation hearing, Garland said his first order of business would be the investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol as he broadly vowed to confront the threat of domestic terrorism. His first significant trip as attorney general was to Oklahoma City, where he spoke at a ceremony to remember the people killed in the 1995 bombing of a federal building there. The blast, which killed 168 people, remains one of the deadliest domestic terrorist attacks in U.S. history. It occurred when Garland was last at the Justice Department, and he supervised prosecutors on the case.
Federal prosecutors are pursuing more than 400 cases against people involved in the Capitol riot, and they signaled in a recent court filing that they expect to bring at least 100 more. The probe is one of the largest in U.S. history, prosecutors have said, and Justice has had to utilize lawyers from across the country to manage the workload.
Investigators have been particularly focused on members of the right-wing Proud Boys and Oath Keepers groups, charging dozens of their members and associates with crimes related to the incident.
In his early months on the job, Garland has also shown that he is focused on civil rights, and has taken a dramatically different tack than his predecessors in the Trump administration on issues of local policing.