House Salary ‘Gamble’ Fails

Extra Funds Not Forthcoming

Posted September 12, 2008 at 6:21pm

House appropriators plan to take millions of dollars from various legislative branch projects — including the Capitol Visitor Center — to help pay for the raises they gave to House staffers about seven months ago.

In January, appropriators gave Members’ office budgets a 2.5 percent increase for the pay hikes by pulling about $14 million from the account that pays for employees’ health care and life insurance.

That account is now $11 million short.

Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard said the original plan was to gain back the $14 million through a Congressional supplemental, a “gamble” that never materialized.

Now he’s looking to take millions from accounts for the CVC and Disaster Recovery fund, among others, a plan which must be approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

“We knew we’d have to replenish that account, but we couldn’t have predicted at that point that there would be this stalemate between the president and Congress about appropriations,” Beard said. “That’s the reality we’re living in. There wasn’t a supplemental, there won’t be a supplemental, and we’re going to deal with that funding shortage.”

Appropriators assert that such “reprogramming” is a common budgetary practice that occurs throughout the year. Some budgets fall short and some prove too generous, they say, so money is constantly moved from one office to the other.

However, much more money is being moved around than in past years.

At the end of fiscal 2008, about $2 million in the legislative branch budget was reprogrammed. This year, that number is $17 million — $11 million of which is the direct result of January’s increase to Members’ office budgets.

At that time, appropriators and House Administration Committee officials decided to raise Members’ Representational Allowances after some Members complained that the original budget wouldn’t cover the annual cost-of-living increases for their staffers.

MRAs fund everything related to Members’ official duties, with three main components: salaries, franked mail and expenses such as travel and district office rent. They have stayed mostly stagnant for years, constrained by a tight legislative branch budget.

But this fiscal year, the increase for MRAs in the original budget was particularly bad, not even topping 1 percent. So in January, Members raised the MRAs by taking the needed $14 million from Government Contributions, an account that funds staffers’ health care and life insurance.

That was “a big no-no,” according to a former GOP appropriations staffer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

Borrowing from one account to pay for another is a common enough practice, the former staffer said, but $14 million is a significant chunk for the relatively small legislative branch budget and “you don’t dip into employees’ health care.”

Now, to replenish that account, Beard is gathering surpluses from about a dozen accounts, including one that funds the CAO’s construction costs for the CVC.

The CVC is almost complete, and Beard said money was left over after his office installed wiring and completed other projects for the massive underground building. He hopes to take about $3.1 million from that account.

But in recent oversight hearings, CVC officials have said that a continuing resolution would leave them short on cash for the center’s Dec. 2 opening. The center, which cost about $621 million to build, now needs to be staffed.

Appropriators have said that Congressional leadership has promised adequate funding, and Beard said the money being reprogrammed is in a different account and will eventually be replenished by next year’s budget.

“At this point, it doesn’t look like we need these funds,” he said. “We certainly won’t need these funds to open up the CVC on time.”

Of the $17 million Beard needs to reprogram, about $6 million is surplus — meaning that if it isn’t used by Oct. 1, it would disappear into the treasury. That includes $500,000 from both Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) offices.

But about $11 million is from accounts that can roll over indefinitely and exist for specific purposes.

For example, Beard plans to take $5 million from the Business Continuity/Disaster Recovery account, which was established after Sept. 11, 2001, and pays for projects that ensure the legislative branch’s survival in an emergency. Future budgets will restore those funds, he said.

Some Republican aides, however, are grumbling that such decisions were made without the minority. They weren’t kept in the loop, they say, and pointed out that Beard did not put his own office budget on the chopping block.

Beard is not a GOP favorite; in July, Boehner called for Beard’s removal because of his “recklessly partisan manner.”

“Our office will end up being OK but that’s not the point,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said in an e-mail. “If Dan Beard spent more time paying attention to his own budget rather than promoting himself and wasting taxpayer dollars, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

But Jeff Ventura, Beard’s spokesman, said the minority was kept up-to-date throughout the “consultative, collaborative process.”

“With regard to reprogrammed funds affecting the Minority, Minority Leadership was CC’d throughout the entire reprogramming process,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and if they had an issue with the reprogramming they had ample opportunity to raise those concerns with the Committee or with the Office of the CAO, and they did not.”