Austerity Hits House

Chairmen Squeeze Leg. Branch Funds

Posted February 25, 2004 at 6:50pm

House Appropriations cardinal Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) caught legislative branch agencies off guard Wednesday when he abruptly canceled budget hearings and demanded significant reductions in the agencies’ fiscal 2005 spending proposals.

Kingston’s complaints come as House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) prepares to propose a fiscal 2005 budget resolution that will likely freeze legislative branch spending at current levels.

Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, Kingston canceled budget hearings after criticizing nearly $457 million in funding increases being sought by the agencies.

Those increases, outlined in President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget, would swell legislative branch spending by about 12 percent to $4.4 billion.

“At times of fiscal restraint we have to show leadership,” said Kingston, who noted that Bush’s budget contained an increase of less than 1 percent for discretionary spending unrelated to defense or homeland security. (Although legislative branch agencies submit their budgets for inclusion in the president’s funding request, those budgets are not adjusted by the White House.)

Nussle’s move could make it even more unlikely that Hill agencies would get their requested budget increases. It could also prompt a freeze in House committee operating budgets, though those decisions will ultimately be made by the Appropriations Committee rather than the Budget Committee.

“Chairman Nussle believes that Congress has to lead the way when it comes to holding the line on spending,” said Nussle spokesman Sean Spicer. “The budget will be tight and Congress has to share in that.”

Kingston added of the legislative branch agencies: “Everybody else is really having to have garage sales, and they come in thinking it’s Christmas morning.”

Although he did not provide specific dollar amounts or percent reductions he was seeking, Kingston did say the administration’s budget should be used as a guide.

“I’d like to see them do better than that,” he said.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the panel’s ranking member, supported Kingston’s decision. “The Congress is not going to be able to justify increasing its own budget by double digits,” he said.

Officials at several of the seven agencies whose budgets were cited by Kingston as excessive — the Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Police, Office of Compliance, Government Printing Office, Library of Congress, Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office — expressed surprise over the Georgia lawmaker’s decision, but most agencies simply acknowledged they would review their requests.

“We’re certainly sympathetic to the chairman’s goals of controlling spending and we look forward to working with him and the committee to put together an appropriate budget for our office,” said Melissa Merson, CBO’s director of communications.

The office is seeking $35.5 million, a 5.5 percent increase over its fiscal 2004 budget. Merson noted that the largest portion of the increase, 4.8 percent, would cover the costs of salaries and benefits for current employees.

Similarly, Bill Thompson, executive director of the Office of Compliance, stated: “We will certainly take a serious look at our proposal and listen very carefully to what the chairman is requesting.”

The Office of Compliance is seeking $3 million, an increase of 50 percent from the current fiscal year. Moran acknowledged, however, that the OOC’s budget request could survive because it is needed to reduce a backlog of cases filed under the Congressional Accountability Act.

Public Printer Bruce James, who heads GPO, said his agency will also review its $151.1 million request, which includes a 12.1 percent increase.

“Last year, the Government Printing Office began transforming into a 21st century digital information processing facility,” James said in a statement. “The GPO successfully carried out a broad reorganization, reduced employment by 10 percent through a voluntary retirement incentive program and closed its failing retail bookstores. These and other cost-saving efforts are restoring the GPO to a positive financial footing.”

Both Library and GAO officials declined to comment.

Kingston and Moran reserved the bulk of their criticism for budget requests made by the Capitol Police Department and the AOC.

“Both have had healthy increases for the last five years,” Kingston asserted.

According to budget documents, the AOC’s office is seeking $571 million, an increase of $176 million over fiscal 2004 totals.

The Architect’s budget includes funds for the maintenance and operation of the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings, as well as facilities housing the Library, Capitol Police and Capitol Power Plant.

“The AOC will consult with all our clients to review the chairman’s request,” said AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki. AOC officials previously noted that the agency’s fiscal 2005 request includes “substantial” requests from the Library and Capitol Police for new projects.

The Capitol Police Department is requesting $292 million in its own budget, a 33 percent increase, for salaries, expenses and security enhancements.

Kingston’s order to cut budget proposals did not come as a surprise to department officials, a Capitol Police spokeswoman said.

“It’s an ongoing process that we continuously review our budget request,” said Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford. Chief Terrance Gainer expects to reach an “agreeable resolution” with the Appropriations panels, she added.

It is not clear whether the agencies will submit alternate budgets to the Senate Appropriations panel, although Kingston suggested some agencies might attempt to “use political bullets and IOUs in the Senate” to save their requests.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who chairs his chamber’s Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said Wednesday that the Senate will not request revised budgets and will proceed with its own hearings, which are scheduled to begin March 4. If new budgets are submitted, the Senate panel would likely take those into consideration, the spokeswoman acknowledged.

Campbell criticized the funding requests last week, stating it may be “difficult to accommodate” the total increase.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.