Appropriators Examine House Budget

Posted March 14, 2008 at 6:15pm

Pages, carbon offsets and evacuation routes were among the eclectic range of topics tackled last week as appropriators looked at the House’s $1.3 billion fiscal 2009 budget request.

Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, Clerk Lorraine Miller and House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood all testified during the Thursday hearing, held by the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

While Members and the House officers chatted about a number of topics, it was their discussion on House security that perhaps was most timely.

Appropriations season — and the cherry blossoms that bloom around the same time — typically bring more people to Capitol Hill, and officials are looking at ways to ensure folks remain safe while allowing House staff to go through their normal routine, Livingood said.

Last week, Capitol Police confirmed that they are increasing staff levels at building entrances in both chambers to help speed up the security process. But Livingood’s office also has started discussions with the Capitol Police to allow staff to come to the front of security lines, he said, as well as ensuring staff-only entrances remain open for House employees.

There also have been changes to the chamber’s emergency evacuation routes.

Sergeant-at-Arms officials recently partnered with the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol fire marshal to look at the House’s overall evacuation plan, visiting every House office and looking at whether emergency routes out of the buildings needed to be changed, Livingood said. In some cases, officials decided to revise where people should exit the building during an evacuation.

Officials also are working on efforts to improve the complex’s overall emergency alert system, Livingood said.

The only campus-wide warning device is the public address system, which is run by the Capitol Police. Otherwise, the House and Senate run independent alert systems, something Livingood wants to integrate with both chambers.

The planned November opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, however, presents the newest challenge for Congressional security, Livingood testified.

The CVC is the largest expansion of the Capitol in its more than 200-year history, and protecting such a big space will require the coordination of the Capitol Police Board, Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol, Livingood said.

Of Livingood’s $8.5 million budget request, he is asking for $700,000 for 15 new full-time employees, 12 of whom would support operations in the CVC.

Eight of those would work as support staff within the Office of Chamber Security, operating gallery check stands and helping move visitors to the galleries from the CVC. The other four employees would operate the appointments desk at the facility.

Capitol security was not the only thing tackled by the committee, as Members asked for a progress report on efforts to improve the House page program.

Run out of the Clerk’s office, the program came under fire last year after four pages were expelled for shoplifting and engaging in a public sex act. Two Members of the page board resigned in the aftermath, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked the House Inspector General to look into ways to improve the program.

Much progress has been made in recent weeks implementing the recommendations, Miller said, including plans to hire a deputy clerk who specifically would oversee the pages. Right now, there are 37 applicants for that spot, Miller said.

In her written testimony, Miller noted that the office also recently updated the card access system at the Page Residence Hall and bought several GPS enabled cell phones that pages can check out if they leave the dorm for any reason.

The phones are programmed with emergency contact numbers and include walking directions for getting around town. They also allow staffers to check the location of the pages.

Other efforts are being made to improve supervision at the residence hall, Miller said. A recent renovation of the office area hall was completed the week of Feb. 7, and additional windows and a view panel were installed to help the staff better observe the area around the dorm’s entrance, according to Miller’s testimony.

Most of Miller’s $24.9 million request would go to pay for staff expenses, she noted, adding that this Congress is the most active in the House’s history — 1,186 votes and 2,373 committee hearings were held during the first session alone — and thus her staff has logged more overtime hours than ever before.

The panel also spent much of its time quizzing Beard, whose $128.5 million request is the biggest of all House officers.

Like the Clerk, much of that money would go to personnel expenses, but the CAO also is asking for $18.9 million to improve benefits for House workers, $2 million for the Green the Capitol Initiative and $20.2 million to continue work on technology upgrades in the chamber’s hearing rooms.

Beard also wants $5 million to kick-start the House’s Wounded Warrior Program, which seeks to bring wounded veterans to work in the House, and $13.9 million for the New Member Office Initiative, a new program that would help freshman Members adjust to life on Capitol Hill.

“We want to help new Members and their staff hit the ground running,” Beard said. “Too often, it takes Members months and months to get adjusted.”

Instead of having each office waste time tackling startup efforts, 10 new CAO workers would be charged with handling such issues, Beard said. The program would offer Members basic operational support — configuring computer servers and telephone lines, for example — without forcing them to use money from their Members’ Representational Allowances, Beard added.

Members wouldn’t let Beard leave the hearing without asking questions about his controversial 2007 purchase of $89,000 worth of carbon offsets.

Ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) noted that the purchase has been heavily criticized for going toward programs that already were funded anyway, adding that many consider the entire offset market to be unregulated and ineffective.

“Why would we want to put X number of dollars into a scheme like that?” he asked.

Beard maintained the purchase was made to help ensure the House is carbon-neutral by the end of the 110th Congress.

“Frankly, we were at a point where we couldn’t do anything more this year to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “It’s a new market, and it may have problems associated with it, but its the best market we’ve got,” he said of the credits.

Not all of the questions thrown at Beard were so serious.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, made a rare appearance to ask the CAO about how the new coffee in the House cafeterias was selected.

“I can’t believe I’m going to be asking this, but my staff wanted me to, because apparently we’ve been getting a lot of calls on it,” Lewis joked, noting the change had sparked some complaints.

Beard responded that the new coffee, picked since House restaurants came under new management, was chosen after a thorough taste test.