After Cutting to the Bone, a Little Relief for House Members and Committees
Three years of continuously shaving committee spending and cutting congressional office budgets have taken a toll on House operations, but leaders indicate they want to provide mild relief.
House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of the negative impact of budget cuts last March, as her committee listened to two days of testimony from the top dogs of the chamber’s committees.
To deal with complex tax code rewrites, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said he needed to hire staff with advanced degrees in tax law, economics and public policy, but compensating people with those qualifications would come at an increased cost.
Figuring out school reform requires getting out of the Capitol and visiting the nation’s schools, explained House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., but those trips cost money. Kline fondly recalled a site visit to a high school in West Virginia to see implementation of new school lunch standards, where his staff “sat with the students and ate a chicken biscuit.” Such travel is a challenge in the age of austerity.
“Many, many committees have expressed concern,” Miller said in a recent interview. “But everybody on our side … has always certainly said we need to lead by example, so that’s what we’ve done.”
In the first session of the 113th Congress, that meant voting to cut the budgets of most panels by 11 percent, on top of reductions implemented during the 112th Congress. House members have also seen an 11.4 percent reduction in office budgets since 2011. The sequester cut an additional 8.2 percent from the Members’ Representational Allowances.
Every member gets the same amount to pay staff salaries, while the rest of the MRA budget is calculated according to the sum of three line items: travel distance between a member’s district and Washington, the number of households in the member’s district and the rental rates for district offices leased through the General Services Administration.
“We’ve taken about a 20 percent cut as an aggregate,” Miller said.
Those cutbacks have also taken their toll on senior staff morale, recruitment and retention, according to a recent survey by the Congressional Management Foundation. Results of the survey, based on responses from 163 chiefs of staff and district directors, reveal that 62 percent of senior level staffers feel they have “too much to do to do everything well” and 40 percent believe job burnout is a significant problem in their office.
“Decisions have consequences,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the nonpartisan nonprofit. Changes to benefits and pay will have an impact on operations, Fitch said, especially in an environment like Capitol Hill’s, a competitive workplace with highly educated employees.
In contrast, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., assessed that committee spending cuts have not caused too big a strain for his staff, which worked through the holiday break to draft spending legislation.
“I can’t say enough about the staff, how hardworking they have been and are, and this is a huge load they are dealing with — this huge, trillion-dollar, 30-day exercise — but I don’t think that we’ve had a terrible problem with shortage of staff,” Rogers said. “We could use some more, but … if we were going to expect other people to sacrifice, we thought it wise that we sacrifice ourselves first, so that’s how it came to be.”
House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., who took the purse strings for Congress’ own budget in November, also believes in leading by example. After taking a long, hard look at the chamber’s housekeeping requirements, Cole said he determined “there’s just a lot of accumulated needs.”
“If you’re going to have real oversight, you have to have a good staff, and you’ve got to retain them,” Cole told CQ Roll Call. “I think our staffs, both collectively at the committee level and individually, have more than stepped up to the plate, so it’s time to sort of end that and try to restore capability, because I think that’s probably the most important issue that Congress will be dealing with, is oversight.”
Appropriators have unveiled a legislative branch spending bill that contains close to $1.2 billion to fund the operations of the House. The total is about $45 million less than the 2013 level, but a $19 million increase from the sequester levels that went into effect March 1.
After three years of major cuts, Cole said he was aiming, with the support of House GOP leadership, to “make this place operate better and on a little firmer footing.”