House Cuts Funding for Leg. Branch

Posted June 27, 2003 at 6:15pm

The House Appropriations Committee voted last week to cut funds for legislative branch operations, setting up a potential fight with the Senate over allocations for the Capitol Police and Capitol Visitor Center construction.

“We’re headed to a very spirited conference committee on this,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.

Although the Senate has yet to mark up its bill, the CVC project in particular has more support in that chamber. Kingston indicated at Thursday’s full committee markup that the House panel intends to be a force for reining in the project.

The $2.7 billion legislation, which excludes Senate items per tradition, represents a $34 million (1.2 percent) decrease from the fiscal 2003 appropriation and a $290 million (10 percent) reduction from agencies’ requests.

“Every agency in there has had to take cuts,” Kingston said, adding quickly that the bill supports current staffing levels for all agencies. “We worked hard to make sure the employees receive their” cost-of-living increases.

Although the panel left its imprint on nearly every legislative branch agency, by far the most spirited debate at the markup was about the visitor center.

Kingston has said the bill would have only “placeholder” language on funding for the CVC until the committee has a hearing on the project next month. The report language accompanying the bill indicates that the panel “has serious reservations about providing additional funding under the control of the Architect given the track record of the Architect’s organization and inability to manage.”

A recent General Accounting Office study found that the CVC could need as much as $47.8 million in additional funds, on top of the $373.5 million already budgeted, due to unanticipated costs.

Although Kingston and Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) have delivered the most caustic comments about the CVC so far, other committee members joined the fray last week.

Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) derided the planned $10 million tunnel from the subterranean center to the Library of Congress that was designed to link the two institutions for both visitors and Members (the latter have exclusive use of certain reading rooms).

“I think it’s useless and we need to get rid of it,” Pastor said to boos from the Congressional staff in the room. “I got to tell you most Members don’t know were the Library is.”

Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), who previously chaired the legislative branch subcommittee, was not in favor of the project when it was in its planning stages in the 105th Congress but said then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) bore down on the subcommittee and pushed the project through.

Walsh said the House panel needs to exert “downward pressure” on the CVC budget because the Senate “has grander designs” for the project.

Members of the panel made few comments regarding the decision to slash the Capitol Police Department’s fiscal 2004 budget by $28 million and deny funding for any additional full-time-equivalent employees.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a former police officer who now chairs his chamber’s legislative branch subcommittee, has shown considerable support for both completing the CVC as planned and funding the Capitol Police.

Kingston praised the department’s “hard work,” but again noted concerns over the size of the department, which has grow by 512 slots, or 37 percent, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Currently, the department has about 1,400 sworn officers and an additional 227 civilian employees, and plans to grow to 1,569 sworn officers by the end of this fiscal year.

“We do not want to fund new posts,” Kingston said. The committee is holding funds pending the outcome of a strategic plan being developed by the law-enforcement agency.

Anticipating the cuts made by House Members, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said earlier this month: “Government growth, including police, should be measured, responsible and based on need. There are few more things I would like to do for the men and women of the U.S. Capitol Police and would hope for the Senate to give a ruble or two.”

The Senate Appropriations subcommittee has not yet held a markup of its version of the bill; however, in an early-May hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) questioned whether technology could be used to reduce the number of officers currently employed by the department.

In a related security issue, the House panel directed the Architect of the Capitol to submit a proposal for restarting tours of the Dome, which closed to the public in 2001. “[T]he Committee is concerned that the closure of the dome is contrary to its symbol as our nation’s freedom,” the report said.

Members also pushed forward plans for a staff fitness center, allocating $100,000 to the Architect Alan Hantman’s office to conduct a study on placing a temporary 4,000 square-foot facility in one of the House office buildings by February 2004. Another $164,000 is earmarked for the construction of staff shower facilities in the Cannon and Longworth buildings by September.

Similarly, Obey focused on pay scales for House staffers during his remarks.

Obey also raised concerns over a lack of benefits for House staffers, noting that high turnover rates result in Members being advised by a “kiddie corps.”

“It is very difficult to keep House [staffers] from drifting over to the Senate,” Obey said. “The Senate has always managed to take care of their employees. We’ve been gutless for years in getting our staff salaries equal to the Senate. We’re going to be advised by a kiddie corps over here.”

The panel also approved two amendments to the spending billing, including one by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that directs the Architect’s office to provide basic worker benefits, such as pension and health programs, to temporary workers.

The amendment reinforces a requirement included in the fiscal 2002 bill directing the Architect’s office to provide any long-term temporary employees with benefits.

The second amendment, sponsored by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), would create a closer relationship between the Library of Congress and the District of Columbia’s public schools.