July 24, 2014
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren said that potential cuts to House operating budgets because of the sequester would affect how offices function.

Sequester Will Hurt on the Hill

Members of Congress nearly uniformly decry the threat of sequestration and the effect that $109 billion in automatic spending cuts next year would have on government operations, particularly the military.

But if they are unsuccessful in heading off the sequester when the House and Senate reconvene in a post-election session, lawmakers will not need to look beyond their own offices to see the effects. Because Congress did not exempt itself from the deficit-reduction mechanism written into last year's debt limit deal, funding for the legislative branch is in line for an 8.2 percent cut.

A September report to Congress from the Office of Management and Budget concluded the sequester would trim $101 million from House office salaries and expenses next year and $32 million from Senators' personnel and office expenses, based on fiscal 2012 spending levels. None of the fiscal 2013 appropriations bills have been enacted.

Sequestration would be particularly hard on House offices, where budgets for staff salaries and other operating expenses - known as Members' Representational Allowances - have already been reduced by 11.4 percent during the 112th Congress.

"The majority of offices said in late 2011 that, for 2012, they were going to be cutting to the bone," said Rick Shapiro, a former executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. Now a consultant to the organization, Shapiro  interviewed dozens of lawmakers and chiefs of staff last year to compile a report and manual on how House offices can prioritize in the face of further cuts.

"They're not replacing staff, they've stopped doing certain things they've done routinely, like town hall meetings. They're not allowing staff to travel back to the district, or they're limiting times a Member can go back," Shapiro said. "What are the prospects for 2013? My guess is, this time around, a lot of offices are going to say, 'There's nothing left to cut. Now every time we cut, we're cutting services and reducing the capacity of this office.'"

The legislative branch budget, established by the smallest of the dozen annual  appropriations bills, funds staff salaries  and office operating expenses. It also supports the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol's office and the Government Accountability Office. And then there's the Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the budgetary impact of legislation.

Unless Congress and the president agree on an alternative to the sequester, all of those budgets would be cut by 8.2 percent, according to the OMB.

The legislative branch budget has already taken deep cuts in the past two years, with lawmakers - particularly in the House - using the appropriations bill as an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to lead by example in the deficit reduction effort.

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