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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), best known as his party’s top messaging lieutenant, might find that fighting Republicans is a lot easier than his other responsibility, running the Rules and Administration Committee.
The committee controls the mundane details of the chamber, but that responsibility comes with enormous power to affect the working lives of every Senator — from which Member should get which prime Capitol office hideaways to how much funding committees get. With budgets across the government being squeezed, the latter has put the panel in a particularly tough spot this year.
The omnibus spending bill passed in December made serious cuts to legislative appropriations, and in a rare move, Senate committees were asked to make significant cuts to their budgets to ease the pain inflicted on personal offices, which have faced cuts for two consecutive years.
Appropriations cut the general pot for committees from $140.2 million to $131 million for fiscal 2012, leaving the Rules and Administration Committee to dole out the cuts to each Senate committee. Multiple sources confirmed that one of the panel’s top staffers sent an email Jan. 3 notifying aides on each Senate panel that there was a budget shortfall and cuts would have to be made retroactive to October 2011. According to a source knowledgeable about the situation, there was a $5 million shortfall after remaining funds from the previous fiscal year were applied to this year’s budget.
“It means less people to do some of the work,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said. “I think to some degree, it means other people pick up the pieces to try to get it done, to try to get by. It’s not as effective, and it’s not as efficient.”
“There were some cuts that were higher than others,” Kerry added, when asked if the cuts were evenly distributed.
Sources close to multiple committees indicated frustration with the way Rules and Administration handled the distribution of cuts, saying they did not receive enough notice to prepare and that the panel was not transparent about how each committee would be affected. Aides present at staff director meetings at the end of 2011 said Rules and Administration staffers were asked repeated questions from top panel aides and did not seem to have concrete answers.
But even those who were frustrated with their own budget outlooks defended Rules and Administration in part. They noted that cuts have been made across government, and that there should be little sympathy for committees that never have had to tighten their belts. Despite the fact that there was little notice, veteran Hill staffers should have known cuts were coming, other sources said, and shrinking bloated budgets makes sense.
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.