Tight Budgets Hit House Panels

Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:44pm

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has become the face of all things stimulus in recent months, holding countless hearings and negotiations on the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars.

But on Wednesday, the House Financial Services chairman was the one sitting at the witness table, asking some of his colleagues for an extra $3 million to beef up his committee’s staff.

“The Committee on Financial Services has a bigger increment of stuff to do than any other committee,” he said, “and it’s going to continue.”

He won’t get it all. In fact, few of the 19 House committees who submitted budget requests Wednesday will get the funding increases they want.

What they end up getting depends on the House Administration Committee, which authorizes House committee budgets at the beginning of every new Congress, subject to approval of the full House. That budget will determine the resources and aides each committee will have for two years — and will affect the workload each panel can handle.

The Senate goes through a similar process, and a couple of committees have introduced budget resolutions. But the Senate Rules and Administration Committee hasn’t had a public hearing on any requests and could provide no details by press time.

This year, the House panels are collectively seeking an 11.6 percent boost over what they received at the beginning of the 110th Congress.

But their funding requests are by and large considered “wish lists.” In the past, some committees have received half or less than they requested.

On Wednesday, committee chairmen argued for increases that ranged from 24.7 percent (Small Business Committee) to almost no increase at all (Budget Committee).

Frank’s committee is somewhere in the middle, with a request for an increase of about 16 percent — some of which would go to support 30 additional staffers.

Not only do Financial Services staffers have to deal with all the issues surrounding the economic crisis, Frank said, but they’ve also become the go-to experts for Members of Congress.

“A large number of requests come from our colleagues,” he said. “We have become to some extent a service bureau.”

But while Frank wants to address the current recession with additional staffers, those same economic woes mean House officials are unlikely to approve such a high request.

Indeed, at Wednesday’s hearing, House Administration ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told every committee chairman that money was tight; every budget, he said, would have to “get a haircut.”

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) argued that he had already trimmed what he could. His committee is seeking $23.9 million, a 9.8 percent increase over last Congress’ budget of $21.6 million.

“If budgets were not so tight,” he said, “we would be asking for more.”

All in all, the committees are asking for about $305 million, not including the not-yet-released budget of the House Administration Committee.

The Appropriations Committee, per tradition, writes and approves its own separate budget.

Most chairmen and their ranking members argued that work has increased tremendously since 2007, and their staffs are struggling to keep up.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said he had one staffer to handle all Middle East issues and another to cover all of Europe and Russia. In part to hire more staff, he is asking for $21.4 million, an 18.9 percent increase.

“I need to augment that,” he said. “Without the resources, I won’t be able to do that, and I’ll be less effective because of that.”

But Lungren told Berman and other committee chairmen that the Appropriations Committee had already indicated how much could be spent, and it wasn’t enough to satisfy everyone’s request. Within the next few weeks, the two committees will meet again and determine a final budget.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) offered some distant hope, however. In a year, he and Lungren want the committee chairmen to come back and report on how their budgets worked out.

“We don’t have the luxury to give you what you want,” Brady said. But, he added, changes could be possible in a year. “We’ll try to fight along with you with our appropriators and get more money.”