Appropriators Consider Trust Fund for Buildings

Posted June 9, 2009 at 6:24pm

House appropriators are hoping to ensure Congress’ historical buildings don’t crumble by setting up a trust fund for their renovation.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch announced the move at a markup Tuesday of Congress’ appropriations bill, which would provide $3.68 billion to Congressional offices and agencies. The Senate’s subcommittee is expected to mark up its bill next week, bringing the total to about $4.7 billion.

Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the trust fund — which would start off with $60 million in the proposed spending bill — would ensure that an estimated $1 billion in repairs doesn’t hit the legislative branch budget too hard.

“Now we’ll have the funds,— she said. “I know that if we don’t do this, we’ll eat into the leg branch budget.—

Last month, acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers estimated that renovating just the Cannon House Office Building would cost about $750 million. Repairs to other old buildings in the Capitol complex will cost hundreds of millions more.

Wasserman Schultz said that number was “very mushy— and far from definitive, but she added that the century-old building was in dire need of extensive repairs. That includes electrical, heating, plumbing and security systems work.

Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee applauded the efforts to make such renovations after years of put-off projects. The fiscal 2010 bill reported by the subcommittee also includes funding for 23 of 30 “high priority— maintenance projects of the AOC.

“If we don’t take care of what we have, we don’t have what we have,— Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said.

Facilities maintenance, however, is one of the few items appropriators generously funded in the spending bill. Overall, it increases the legislative branch budget by 6.8 percent — less than half the requested 15 percent increase.

Members’ offices would get an 8.4 percent increase in their Members’ Representational Allowances under the bill. That increase — from $609 million to $660 million — would cover salary increases and two new employee benefits.

Under that budget, each Member office would get $10,000 to $15,000 for a tuition reimbursement plan. About $1 million total would also be available for child care benefits for lower-paid employees.

Wasserman Schultz said the new benefits will help retain House staffers, who tend to leave after only a few years.

“We have been great at attracting young talent, but holding on to that great talent has been a struggle,— she said.

For the most part, appropriators did not fund any new programs, sticking to cost-of-living increases and technology enhancements.

The subcommittee also delayed funding for the Capitol Police’s request for 76 new officers to decrease overtime. The department spends more than $25 million a year on hundreds of thousands of overtime hours — sometimes for unexpected events like late-night Congressional sessions, but also just to fill the gaps on normal days.

Officials have been evaluating their plans and practices to find the right balance, but Wasserman Schultz said the department still needs a “better handle on its work force management systems— before adding more officers to its 1,800-strong force.

Other legislative branch agencies fared similarly, getting somewhere from a 5 percent to 7 percent increase. The appropriations bill also has a few provisions attached, including one that directs the Capitol Visitor Center to take steps to preserve staff-led tours and another that requires the Congressional Research Service to adopt a telework policy.

Wasserman Schultz predicted that most of the subcommittee’s bill will align with the Senate version.

But at least one provision promises to spark a disagreement: The House bill begins a three-year phasing out of funding for the Open World Leadership Center, an exchange program with Russia that was founded by Librarian of Congress James Billington. Wasserman Schultz has repeatedly argued that it doesn’t belong in Congress’ budget.

However, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — supports the program’s place on the legislative branch budget. Its annual budget is about $14 million.