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Craigslist for Congress? Farr Makes Far-Fetched Pitches

Farr, right, wants to streamline tour booking for staff assistants. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Trying to find housing near the Capitol? Selling a bike? Need to locate lost jewelry?  

Right now, cork bulletin boards outside the Hill's cafeterias serve as the only official space for staffers to post such notices. But Rep. Sam Farr wants the House to follow the lead of other large employers by creating an online system to make such transactions simpler.  

"Craigslist, Freecycle, eBay all are examples of Web bulletin boards for the exchange of goods and services. Why can't the House have an in-house Web bulletin board?" the California Democrat asked House Chief Administrative Officer Ed Cassidy during a Feb. 25 Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing on the agency's $1.2 billion budget.  

First appointed to the House Appropriations Committee in 1999, Farr is a veteran budget wonk with more than two decades of experience on the Hill who is new to the Legislative Branch Subcommittee. His latest assignment, helping craft the smallest of the 12 annual funding bills, gives the former state assemblyman and county supervisor a window into how Congress manages its own $4.5 billion pocketbook and the chance to pitch improvements.  

Craigslist for the Capitol is one of a host of ideas Farr's staff has suggested might enhance their workplace. Farr's office said one member of the staff has a family member who works with the World Bank and suggested that agency's website bulletin board might be a good model for the Hill.  

"It could be limited to posting and receiving messages only from those with a House email address and none other," Farr said, explaining cybersecurity provisions. "It could also have strict terms of service, so its use would be for everyday, ordinary transactions, not regular business enterprises or job marketing. One violation of the rules and that House email could be barred from participating."  

Farr took another tip from his staff assistant, who also wears the tour coordinator hat: "One-stop shopping" for popular Washington, D.C., tours. The congressman asked Cassidy whether it would be possible to organize all tour reservation opportunities — ranging from the White House and the Kennedy Center, to the Library of Congress and the Pentagon — on one site.  

"Right now, our staff assistants have to go to each of these places individually to book a tour," he said. "It's just a very inefficient system."  

Cassidy said he would be more than willing to look at the proposal. "It may be the best we can do is to create a central repository of links to those sites, because as you know, not all those sites are operated by the House, but we will do anything we can to make it easier for people to find the information they need easily in that regard," he said.

The House’s internal website has a page with information about Capitol and White House tours, along with additional tour offerings. The CAO's office will be adding additional links soon, according to spokeswoman Emily Goodin.

Farr also put Cassidy on the spot about cost-of-living adjustments for House staff.  

Asked why pay continued to increase for the CAO's workforce while Congress has halted cost-of-living adjustments for staff in member and committee offices, Cassidy explained that under law, institutional employees of the House are treated much like career civil servants. When the president signs into law a cost-of-living adjustment for the executive branch, it typically results in the same increase for House officers, though the CAO's operating budget does not increase to cover the pay raise.  

"So, we're taking out of our hide just as member offices and committees are; the difference is our folks view it more as an entitlement because they're part of this general schedule in the House," Cassidy said. Absorbing those costs "creates real challenges for us," he added.  

"This is crazy because here we are denying COLAs to our staff, but the budget that we give the office has to pay for the COLAs for others," Farr responded. "We [ought to] correct that and just have everybody have an opportunity for a COLA."  

Farr also criticized Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine over the department's request for more than $307 million for salaries, amounting to a 7 percent increase from the $286 million used to pay officers in the current fiscal year.  

"Your budget increase is bigger than that of the Pentagon," Farr said. "You get better pay, better benefits, better COLAs than the staff that are coming through the magnetometers who aren't getting those benefits."  

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