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Senate Committee Cuts Create Friction

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
The Rules and Administration Committee and its chairman, Charles Schumer, announced cuts to committee budgets recently.

In the Jan. 3 email, the Rules and Administration Committee announced that committees already operating at less than 88 percent of their authorization would be locked into those lower levels. Five committees that were operating at more than 88 percent of their budget were asked to come down to the 88 percent level. One Senate source cited the Finance and Commerce committees as panels that were spending more than 88 percent of their authorizations.

“There was no precedent for cuts to committees, and there was always this understanding that if you spent wisely that you wouldn’t be punished for that,” another Senate aide said. “The way they ended up doing it, you got punished if you spent less, and that was the first time that had ever been in play.”

By contrast, the House Administration Committee held a hearing Nov. 30 on committee funds, receiving testimony from each House committee chairman and ranking member about how to dole out funds to their panels.

“The omnibus imposed serious belt tightening across the federal government, and Senate committee budgets were no exception. The budget for each committee was set through a fair, bipartisan process that held the vast majority of committees harmless and spread the cuts across five of the highest-spending committees,” Rules and Administration spokesman Brian
Fallon said in a statement.

Schumer had been relatively hands-off in the process, sources said, leaving the bulk of the work to his committee staffers. But sources noted that the committee aides have been reaching out to aggrieved committees to try to figure out a way to help those panels that might need more funds to continue their work.

“It’s very much Schumer-style. I think he does take a lot of risks, and sometimes walks in the wrong place, but he’s very quick to fix it and say, ‘OK, what can I do?’” a Senate aide said.

But the discomfort with cuts to committees, the lifeblood of the Senate’s legislative work, underscores a growing problem with how Congress can work effectively under increased budget constraints. Many committee staffers noted that the cuts come on top of growth in fixed costs, such as contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan and Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Some veteran staffers are concerned about what will happen to their panels after the November elections, when Congress may find new momentum and committees are expected to work again in earnest on legislation.

“In real terms, particularly decisions going forward, it’s made it more difficult,” another staffer said. “Personnel and expenses that were already on payroll aren’t really impacted, but going forward, being able to bring additional people on. ... It’s created a decent amount of tension.”

Correction: March 7, 2012

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which committees spent more than 88 percent of their budget authorizations. The Finance and Commerce panels did, but the Budget Committee did not.

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