The GOP transition group dedicated to overhauling House operations is taking a broad look at potential cost cuts, including ideas for slicing Member budgets, limiting printing and pooling cell phone minutes, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.
Reps. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) and Tom Cole (Okla.), the group’s leaders, have been soliciting ideas from Members and the heads of Congressional support agencies in meetings, from a suggestion box or simply by being “buttonholed in the hallway,” Goodlatte said.
“There’s no aspect of the legislative branch of the federal government that we are not focused on,” Goodlatte said during an interview Tuesday. “You’ve got to clean house — clean the House — before you can get the credibility to do the same things government-wide.”
Cole said the group is focused most immediately on House initiatives that can be changed without bicameral or legislative action.
“That’s what leadership wants us to do,” Cole said. “It makes sense to me that the areas we can change on our own the fastest should have high priority.”
But the group is examining every support agency and challenging them to cut their budgets. So far, a few ideas have stood out.
“One of things that the team is looking at is the possibility that we can reduce some of the printing that’s done around here, some of the hard copy printing,” a GOP transition staffer said.
The suggestion seems to resemble a bill proposed by Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) that was voted down on the House floor Wednesday. Brought to the floor under the GOP’s YouCut initiative, the bill would have saved about $35 million over 10 years by ending the practice of delivering five printed copies of legislation to every sponsor, original co-sponsor and committee of jurisdiction.
Almost $94 million was appropriated for Congressional printing and binding in fiscal 2010. A Government Printing Office spokesman said the agency, which would bear the burden of this cut, would adapt if this change is instituted.
Another promising suggestion, the GOP transition staffer said, is negotiating cell phone contracts with companies to pool usable minutes across the House, so instead of some offices having unused minutes and others going over their allotment, offices could share rollover minutes.
“Every dime in every [Members’ Representational Allowance] comes out of the same appropriations act,” the staffer said. “Why should the phone company get to treat it as 435 separate small businesses?”
But Goodlatte said the panel plans to recommend that offices remain independent in other ways. Though President Barack Obama this week instituted a two-year pay freeze for federal workers to curb the deficit, no such plan is being discussed in the working group, Goodlatte said. Instead, he suggested the panel will recommend cutting the Members’ Representational Allowances, the amount of money each office is allotted for salaries, expenses and travel.
“Within an individual Member’s office, for us to presume to tell them how to operate, I think, is a mistake,” Goodlatte said. “Our recommendation will more likely be focused on the overall amount of money a Member can spend, rather than micromanage exactly how they spend it.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, another Member of the transition group, said the recyclable utensils in Longworth Cafeteria, which are pricier than plastic cutlery, could be targeted.
“We want to be responsible and as green as possible, but we have to balance that with the expense,” the Utah Republican said.
Other expected recommendations are more general, such as increasing transparency when House agencies make decisions that would affect Members and staff, the staffer said.
But at the same time, the group recognizes the test of cutting costs while mitigating thousands of safety hazards around the Capitol complex and keeping up security.
In the budget justifications submitted in February, the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police requested 15 percent budget increases from fiscal 2010.
“This is a time when it’s pretty evident that people don’t want Congress spending money on itself,” the staffer said. “It’s a challenge, but at the end of the day, I think we’ll be able to do both. We’ll be able to reduce the cost of operations of Congress, but we’re going to put a lot of emphasis into figuring out how to do more with less.”
Since a budget has not been passed and Congress is working under a continuing resolution, the group has no hard deadline at which time its recommendations must be submitted.
“The most important deadline for the House operations team is Jan. 5, because that’s when we get the keys to the car,” the staffer said.
Still, any conclusions the panel draws will have to be acted on either by Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) or House committees.
“We don’t have any legal authority to set the budgets ... but I think a lot of the suggestions we make in this committee will be taken pretty seriously by the leadership and by the conference,” Goodlatte said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.