Of all the changes that transformed daily life on Capitol Hill in 2007, perhaps no Member played a bigger role than a second-term Congresswoman from Florida.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a Chief Deputy Whip with a reputation as a prolific fundraiser, added subcommittee chairwoman to her résumé last January when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appointed her to head the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.
The job ahead was no easy one. It was the first time in two years the House panel even existed, as Republicans had disbanded it in the 109th Congress. Cost overruns and delays continued to plague the Capitol Visitor Center, and the entire legislative branch was operating under a continuing resolution.
But by the end of 2007, Wasserman Schultz and her colleagues on the panel had secured a small increase in agency funding while also increasing oversight of the CVC, Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol and other Congressional agencies.
“There are people who are fast out of the box and get started quickly,” said Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, whose office is funded through the subcommittee. “She is like a rocket out of the box.”
It could be argued that Wasserman Schultz had to act more quickly than was expected, because for the early months of 2007, the subcommittee took charge of not only funding the legislative branch but also managing it.
Congressional jurisdiction gives most managerial duties to the House Administration Committee. But Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) was privately fighting cancer in early 2007 (she died of the disease in April), which prevented the panel from hosting hearings and tackling problems.
So the Appropriations subcommittee stepped in. In an interview, Wasserman Schultz said her priority was and continues to be making sure the money the committee hands out winds up in capable hands.
“Accountability from this subcommittee has been the major, major focus for me,” Wasserman Schultz said of legislative branch agencies. “I certainly can’t do their jobs for them, but I want to make sure we guard the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Wasserman Schultz — who maintains a strong working relationship with ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) — focused her efforts in 2007 on the AOC, particularly the management of the CVC project, which was $300 million over budget and two years delayed by the start of the year.
“I realized off the bat that the Architect of the Capitol’s office was adrift,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It wasn’t just that the CVC distracted them; there were so many projects.”
To help fix things, the panel included a provision in its appropriations bill report creating an inspector general at the AOC. Monthly oversight hearings of the CVC also began. By November, the AOC and Government Accountability Office had agreed on an opening date and cost for the first time. (The CVC is now slated to be completed in November with a price tag of $621 million.)
The panel also took on internal challenges at the Capitol Police department. The force had been marred by poor management of its finances, something the subcommittee asked Chief Phillip Morse to focus on.
“They had a lot of cleanup work to do. There was a lot of dirt on the ground,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We’re going to make sure that we continue to have the lines of communication open.”
Things in 2007 were tough for most legislative branch agencies. The continuing resolution implemented by the previous Republican majority kept budgets stagnant, a new Democratic majority meant new priorities and union disputes kept several agencies at the negotiating table for months.
But officials said agencies also benefited from the attention of the subcommittee, which held a series of hearings with individual Congressional officers and agencies during the first half of the year.
“We definitely see it as a positive thing to have,” said Jo Anne Jenkins, the Library of Congress’ chief operating officer. “We’re certainly gratified to have a committee that’s focused on the legislative branch and particularly on the Library of Congress. We have seen with the new chairwoman ... an increased interest in the Library and its programs.”
Indeed, Wasserman Schultz facilitated many conversations with the LOC, giving the agency a “more direct interface with the Members who are directly dealing with the budget,” Jenkins said.
The Library and other legislative branch agencies received a small increase this year, made even smaller by a last-minute cut designed to slim down the appropriations omnibus bill. Altogether, it came to a 3 percent increase for the entire legislative branch, with security at the top of the list.
Such a small increase meant putting off maintenance projects and deferring payment for special services by the Government Printing Office for another year, but Wasserman Schultz said she also is hoping to focus on the agencies’ agendas over the next few years. She plans to meet with Librarian of Congress James Billington in 2008 to ensure that the future needs of the LOC, a constantly evolving institution that is a role model for libraries nationwide, are taken care of.
“Not just be thinking about the now, but thinking about where we want to be in the long term,” she said. “That whole notion is a perfect fit for this agency.”
Still, Wasserman Schultz’s hands-on approach and attention to detail can’t speed up an appropriations process that hasn’t finished on time in years.
Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the GAO, has often criticized the inability of Congress to get the budget out by the beginning of the fiscal year, calling the system “broken” and questioning whether his agency would shrink under another continuing resolution.
However, in the end, he said the 4 percent increase in the agency’s budget would allow it to offer competitive pay and keep it afloat.
It was on the issue of unionization that Walker was at odds with Wasserman Schultz and several other Democratic Members. For months, GAO analysts petitioned Walker for a vote to unionize, angered by his decision to restructure the agency’s pay system and deny hundreds of employees their annual raises. The debate became mired in negotiations and arguments over who should be allowed to vote, until Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and others took to the House floor and expressed their support for a vote.
In September, employees voted to have the first-ever union at the agency. The fact that Members kept an eye on the proceeding helped the effort, said GAO analyst Robert Kershaw, who now sits on the new union’s interim board.
“I can’t praise enough Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” he said, later adding: “Some of the counterproductive effects of GAO human capital reforms were exposed this year to the public through the effort of Democrats.”
But while the union’s formation was an historic first, it wasn’t alone in breaking new ground in 2007. Pelosi’s Green the Capitol Initiative put in motion an effort to change the environmental outlook of Capitol Hill.
Wasserman Schultz and the subcommittee played a key role in getting the Green project off the ground, said Beard, who oversaw the plan.
“She just made it clear, ‘We are going to find the funds for this effort,’ and she put the funds in the bill,” Beard said. “Her role has been vital.”
Others have similar praise for Wasserman Schultz, including Pelosi.
“Attaining a subcommittee chair in only her first year on the Appropriations Committee is a testament to the deep respect Members have for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for her talent, and for her commitment to our party’s values,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Wasserman Schultz said she has a positive relationship with current House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), and that panel has since begun to reassert its jurisdiction. Brady, for example, played a vital role in establishing the conditions of the merger between the Capitol Police and Library of Congress police forces.
In 2008, the Appropriations subcommittee will no doubt continue its efforts to improve things on Capitol Hill.
Wasserman Schultz said she plans to meet with each legislative branch agency individually to discuss needs for 2009 and also things that should be addressed in the coming decades, like aging Congressional office buildings, for one.
“It’s not sexy, but it’s a major responsibility of this committee to make sure that the Capitol and its complex is preserved,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We are going to have to deal with the fact that Cannon [House Office Building] is 100 years old.”