House Unveils Hill Funding

Posted June 12, 2007 at 6:45pm

Aside from providing the cash to fund salaries and expenses, the $3.1 billion legislative branch spending bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday presents the Democrats’ new vision for the Capitol campus, one that addresses labor matters, going green, and health and security needs.

The spending measure, which by tradition does not include Senate funding, now heads to the House floor for a vote and will then be vetted in conference committee before being sent to the White House.

One office directly targeted in the bill is the Architect of the Capitol, which garnered considerable criticism from legislative branch subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and other lawmakers throughout the appropriations process.

In the bill’s report, the AOC is directed to establish a statutory inspector general to audit and report semiannually on management, budget and accounting matters at the agency.

“The Committee has reached the limit with the ongoing difficulties in the Architect’s office such as the delays and escalating costs of the Capitol Visitor Center; cost overruns and time delays on almost every other project, as well as the complete management breakdown, failure of appropriate oversight responsibilities, and total disregard for the human element surrounding the Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels,” the report reads.

And the CVC wasn’t the only AOC element that earned criticism in the bill. Lawmakers also sought to improve conditions at the power plant, which has been a target of criticism since Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed forward a Capitol greening initiative earlier this year.

As the House moves forward with a plan to operate in a carbon-neutral environment by the end of the 110th Congress, an amendment to the bill requires any carbon offsets purchased by the House to come from American businesses. A second amendment directs the Government Accountability Office and Department of Energy to study the costs of increasing natural gas fuel at the Capitol Power Plant.

The bill itself offers $3.9 million for the “Green the Capitol” initiative, including $500,000 for an ethanol gas station.

Agencies’ Assignments

Other legislative branch officials are assigned through the bill to undertake studies designed to make Capitol Hill more efficient.

House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard is charged with overseeing a study on how disability access can be improved across the Capitol. His report is due June 30, 2008.

The CAO also is asked to: study ways to establish an alternative schedule for paying House employees (due Dec. 31); work with the House Clerk and Library of Congress to improve access to roll call information (Dec. 1); explore ways to expand the hours of the House Fitness Center (Oct. 31); and work with the House food service contractor to expand the availability of fair-trade-certified coffee and report back to committee by Oct. 31.

Beard also is directed in the bill to undertake a number of security efforts, including studying the feasibility of creating additional remote locations where Members, committees and staffers could work in the event of a disaster and ensure that the House Child Care Center can quickly locate enough bus drivers to evacuate the facility.

Additionally, the CAO will work with the AOC and GAO to undertake a study on the overall facilities management at the Capitol complex and recommend “whether a different approach to facilities management should be undertaken.” That review would be completed by March 31, 2008.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms, meanwhile, is asked to study how to best develop an automated emergency alert system, designed to provide customized, real-time information during emergencies, and submit a report to the committee by Jan. 31, 2008.

Police Matters

The ongoing merger between the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress Police just might have been given a renewed push with the appropriations measure, as the bill seeks to remedy the retirement issues hindering the merger’s progress.

Under the bill, the chief of police and Librarian of Congress would work together to solve the disparity in the number of Capitol Police officers assigned to the LOC and report back to committee by Oct. 31.

Another issue surrounding the merger was how LOC Police retirement packages would be affected.

“The Committee directs that any further action taken on the merger of the Capitol and Library Police forces should in no way negatively impact the retirement benefits of any officer,” the bill report reads.

The committee also asked the Capitol Police to explore creating an electronic mapping of the complex and be prepared to discuss the matter at next year’s budget hearings.

Dealing With the GAO

A number of matters affecting the legislative branch agencies located off Capitol Hill also were included in the bill, particularly the GAO.

The committee criticized the GAO for moving slowly on a labor issue at the agency, a provision Comptroller General David Walker said he found baffling.

In May, more than half of the agency’s 1,500 analysts filed petitions to hold an election to determine whether they will join the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. Union officials have said they are concerned the election will be delayed after GAO management undertook a search process to find outside legal counsel to provide advice during the unionization process.

“The Committee is especially concerned about reports of unusual efforts to challenge the rights of employees to participate in collective bargaining representation, and directs GAO to make certain that no extraordinary measures are taken which might have the effect of blocking or delaying the process,” the report reads. “A substantial number of employees have petitioned for union representation, and the Committee expects the Comptroller General to move the process forward.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Walker said the agency has moved quickly to get through the process. The law firm Venable was hired to provide advice to the agency — which has never dealt with a unionization effort before — as expediently as possible, he added.

“I don’t know where the committee heard we were moving slowly because that’s clearly not the case,” Walker said.

But Matt Biggs, IFPTE’s legislative director, said that hiring an outside firm “is not a legitimate, good use of taxpayer money.”

“Congressional appropriated money is not intended to be used to go out and bust a worker’s right to join a union,” Biggs said, adding that the union is working to get similar language placed into the Senate version of the bill.

Walker also took issue with another administrative provision in the bill that would repeal a unique perk that gives the comptroller general a salary for life. Instead, all future comptrollers general would be covered under the standard Federal Employees Retirement System.

The provision wouldn’t apply to Walker, but he said he was disappointed that he was not consulted at length about the matter.

While Walker admitted he understands why people would “think it’s a rich pension,” he added that the office requires a 15-year commitment, a long time to ask of people who could be making more money in other jobs.

“I would not have taken this job if not for that pension,” Walker said.

As for the $503 million appropriation given to the agency? Walker admitted it isn’t the $523 million the agency sought, but it is the highest percent increase since fiscal 2003.

“We’re living in a time of fiscal constraints, so I’m not surprised we didn’t get what we asked for,” Walker said. “But I’m hopeful we are going to do better in the Senate.”

Elsewhere …

Walker wasn’t the only agency chief to receive less than he had requested.

The Government Printing Office, which had asked for the biggest percent increase among all the legislative branch agencies, was appropriated $131 million — $51 million below the agency’s request.

“While the agency is disappointed with the total appropriation received at this juncture, we look forward to continuing to work with our Appropriations Committees throughout the legislative process,” a GPO spokesman said in a statement.

Officials at the Library of Congress also expressed disappointment with their appropriation, which came in $89 million below their original request.

“We’ll continue to monitor the budget process as it moves to the Senate and make our best case for why we need additional funding to support the Congress and our programs,” LOC spokesman Matt Raymond said.

Changes Were Made

A slew of amendments were included in the spending measure, including one aimed at saving the Open World Leadership Center, which was on track to be defunded in the legislative branch bill that came out of subcommittee last week.

After Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood (R) raised loud objections to the move to essentially cut off money for the program — which runs out of the Library of Congress but has been funded as a separate entity — he and Wasserman Schultz worked out a compromise that would keep the exchange program funded through 2008 as it transitions to the State Department.

An amendment to the State and foreign operations appropriations bill included $6 million for the center that was then matched in the legislative branch bill to keep the program funded. According to the legislation, the Open World program will be officially transferred to State on Oct. 1, 2008.

A vigorous debate ensued after Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) offered an amendment to take funding from a project to create new Congressional office space in the old Food and Drug Administration building just off of Capitol Hill and use it to fully fund the digital “talking book” program at the Library.

The original spending bill fell $12 million short of the $19.5 million the Library had requested to begin a major transition from analog to digital technology for the talking book program. While Kingston argued that new office space is an unnecessary use of Congressional funding, his amendment was defeated but a substitute amendment that bumped up funding for the program by $5 million, to $12.5 million, was adopted by the committee.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) successfully included an amendment to the bill requiring the GAO to study the feasibility of establishing a tuition reimbursement program for legislative branch staff. Citing the fact that executive branch employees and the Capitol Police already have access to both a student loan repayment plan and a tuition reimbursement program, Moran argued that the 10,000 House employees should have the same benefits.

If the measure stays in the final bill, the GAO would have six months to complete a feasibility study on the tuition reimbursement issue.