House Panels Limited to 2 Percent Increases

Posted February 28, 2007 at 6:52pm

House committee leaders warned on Wednesday that they are losing staffers to the private sector, and without an increase in budget funds they will be unable to tackle problems ranging from foreign affairs to small business.

But House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) announced committees will receive an across-the-board increase limited to about 2 percent, as the continuing resolution funding most government operations has applied serious constraints to legislative branch spending.

Committees requested much more than a 2 percent increase, ranging from 4 percent or 5 percent to as much as 43 percent boosts.

“We are trying our best to do whatever we can possibly do,” Millender-McDonald said. “We just do not have the money.”

But Millender-McDonald also said she plans to meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to address the lack of funds for staff, which she called a serious issue.

“We cannot have committees, which are so crucial and important, have turnover,” she said.

House Administration is in charge of approving the funding resolution that provides money for most House committees. Markup on this year’s bill could happen as early as today, with a vote on the House floor next week, according to a committee spokeswoman.

Chairmen and ranking members of most of the House committees appeared before House Administration during an all-day hearing Wednesday, with most displaying a sense of partisanship, agreeing to budgets that provide two-thirds of the money to the majority and one-third to the minority.

Veterans’ Affairs was the exception, however. While Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and ranking member Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) agreed to a two-thirds-to-one-third split for personnel budgets, they could not agree to how that money should be divided otherwise.

Filner presented a $6.9 million budget whose breakdown mirrored that of the budget funded in 109th Congress.

Buyer argued, however, that last year’s budget included more funding for infrastructure needs which have now been fixed, and more money should go to addressing staff matters.

“There is real pain in our committee,” Buyer said.

Millender-McDonald urged the men to “talk it out” and said it might be wise to meet with independent financial experts to settle the matter.

She also reminded the two that their committee is in charge of an array of serious issues, including oversight of executive branch activities, and could be called to deal with emerging problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“Those are very critical issues that are confronting you two leaders,” she said. “Leaders.”

House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) suggested if the men cannot come to an agreement soon, they should perhaps call upon Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to step in and work it out.

If the committee leaders do not come to a compromise soon, they could risk having their budget left off the overall resolution, forcing them to take their budget to the House floor by itself.

Other chairmen and ranking members seemed to be on the same page, however, unanimously agreeing that committees need to start paying their personnel more, since these staffers are often experts in each committee’s particular field.

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), whose committee requested a $16.6 million budget for the 110th Congress, said his committee is trying to compete with the salaries Wall Street can hand out when recruiting Congressional staff.

“I am chagrined at our inability to do more,” Frank said. “I would hope this is something we can address. I am embarrassed. … Let’s give these people a raise, because they deserve it.”

Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) testified that his committee oversees a large range of topics and thus needs many experts if any progress is to be made.

“As good as the staff is, each one of these problems is just tremendous in size,” he said.

Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) testified that the committee is seeking to increase its staff levels to 83 from 67, in part because it established a new subcommittee on oversight and investigation.

The level of specialists needed is of a very high caliber, Skelton added.

“You have to pay them to do this,” he said. “You have to pay them top dollar to get them.”

Small Business Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) said many of her staffers remain with the committee out of loyalty, but eventually the private sector draws them away.

Only one House panel requested an increase in funds less than 2 percent — the Budget Committee, which asked for the same exact amount it received at the start of the 109th Congress.

On the Senate side, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee is set to send to the floor an omnibus committee funding resolution that, over the course of the 110th Congress, increases committee budgets by about 5.3 percent over funding provided during the 109th.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) noted at a hearing on Wednesday that the committee was mandated to mark up a funding plan that was strictly limited by the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution and that the 5.3 percent increase was primarily added to fund cost-of-living adjustments for staffers.

Three Senate committees, Finance, Foreign Relations and Intelligence, submitted budget requests above the guidelines established by Rules.

Two of them — Finance and Foreign Relations — had their budgets supplemented from a special reserve fund during the 109th Congress and were seeking to have that funding permanently added to their budgets. Intelligence sought additional money to increase the pay of senior staffers in order to keep the salaries competitive with other similar opportunities in the job market.

“I have discussed these three requests with my ranking member and we believe the best course of action is to deny the request, at this time,” Feinstein said Wednesday. “Instead, we will seek to address these needs through the use of special reserves.

But, she added, if adequate funding can be found when the Senate takes up the fiscal 2008 legislative branch appropriations bill, she will re-examine the three panels’ requests and possibly add more funding.