The U.S. House voted Thursday to block the Obama administration’s plan to add staff to the Pardon Attorney’s office, a potential barrier to the Justice Department’s efforts to scale back some lengthy prison sentences handed down in the war on drugs.
The measure, sponsored by Republican North Carolina Rep. George Holding, bans any funding for staff who would conduct the administration’s planned review of applications from inmates seeking early release.
The measure is attached to a new Justice Department funding bill that passed on a party-line vote of 219-189. A Justice Department official told msnbc that Attorney General Eric Holder considers the new funding restriction “absurd.”
The department in April launched a new effort to review more clemency applications and expand the criteria for releasing inmates, particularly those still imprisoned under harsh sentencing laws that have since been reformed.
Holding said he pushed the funding ban because he believes Obama is intent on using his presidential pardon power “solely on behalf of drug offenders.”
Speaking on the House floor, Holding also accused the administration of bulking up the Pardon Attorney’s office as a “political ploy” in order to “bypass Congress” and drug laws that are still on the books.
House Democrats objected, saying the funding ban would hamper the research and expertise of the Pardon Office.
“If there were a resignation in the office and if you needed to have a temporary detailee, it would be prohibited from this amendment,” Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chakah Fattah said. “The last thing we would want is the President using such extraordinary power without the benefit of proper staff and due diligence,” he added.
Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that while “no one denies the constitutional power of the president to grant clemency,” the Justice Department’s encouragement of “thousands” of clemency appeals is an improper use of the clemency power.
“Congress should not fund that office for that purpose,” Goodlatte said.
To date, President Obama has granted ten clemency petitions out of 11,218 clemency petitions received.