Sept. 22, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

After Cutting to the Bone, a Little Relief for House Members and Committees

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Miller said committees must lead by example when it comes to cost-cutting.

Three years of continuously shaving committee spending and cutting congressional office budgets have taken a toll on House operations, but leaders indicate they want to provide mild relief.

House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of the negative impact of budget cuts last March, as her committee listened to two days of testimony from the top dogs of the chamber’s committees.

To deal with complex tax code rewrites, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said he needed to hire staff with advanced degrees in tax law, economics and public policy, but compensating people with those qualifications would come at an increased cost.

Figuring out school reform requires getting out of the Capitol and visiting the nation’s schools, explained House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., but those trips cost money. Kline fondly recalled a site visit to a high school in West Virginia to see implementation of new school lunch standards, where his staff “sat with the students and ate a chicken biscuit.” Such travel is a challenge in the age of austerity.

“Many, many committees have expressed concern,” Miller said in a recent interview. “But everybody on our side ... has always certainly said we need to lead by example, so that’s what we’ve done.”

In the first session of the 113th Congress, that meant voting to cut the budgets of most panels by 11 percent, on top of reductions implemented during the 112th Congress. House members have also seen an 11.4 percent reduction in office budgets since 2011. The sequester cut an additional 8.2 percent from the Members’ Representational Allowances.

Every member gets the same amount to pay staff salaries, while the rest of the MRA budget is calculated according to the sum of three line items: travel distance between a member’s district and Washington, the number of households in the member’s district and the rental rates for district offices leased through the General Services Administration.

“We’ve taken about a 20 percent cut as an aggregate,” Miller said.

Those cutbacks have also taken their toll on senior staff morale, recruitment and retention, according to a recent survey by the Congressional Management Foundation. Results of the survey, based on responses from 163 chiefs of staff and district directors, reveal that 62 percent of senior level staffers feel they have “too much to do to do everything well” and 40 percent believe job burnout is a significant problem in their office.

“Decisions have consequences,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the nonpartisan nonprofit. Changes to benefits and pay will have an impact on operations, Fitch said, especially in an environment like Capitol Hill’s, a competitive workplace with highly educated employees.

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