After Years of Cuts or Freezes, Committee Leaders Hope to Bolster Budgets
After several years of budget cuts, congressional committees are looking to rebuild in the 114th Congress, and have been making their case over the past week for more funds.
The House Administration Committee held a day-long hearing on Feb. 4 and will hold another Wednesday to discuss committee budgets. Each committee’s chairman and ranking member will present budget requests, with many asking for increases and others pleading for no further cuts. During the Feb. 4 hearing, House Administration Committee ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., noted funding for committees has an immense effect on staff.
“Many of [the committees] are hoping to add more staff,” Brady said. “Unfortunately, the reality is there is not enough money and not enough resources to fulfill everyone’s request. Even more unfortunate is quite often our staff — those individuals who make it possible for us to do what we do — will suffer as a result.”
Throughout the hearing, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., made multiple references to the “finite pie” of funds to divvy among the committees. A committee spokesperson said the maximum amount of funds it can allocate is $242 million, the same figure from the 113th Congress. The spending level for the 113th Congress incorporated mandatory cuts due to the sequester, and the level was roughly an 11 percent cut from 2012 spending.
Though the bottom line has not changed, several committees are asking for more funds, citing the need for additional staff to accommodate increased oversight and legislative responsibilities.
At the hearing, Miller asked nearly every committee what it would do if granted funding above its request. The most common answer? Hire more staff.
“The committee needs to add staff, particularly tax, health care and the economics fields, to meet these responsibilities,” said Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., whose committee requested a roughly 4 percent increase in funds. “We just can’t do the best job if we don’t have the resources.”
A number of the committees reported operating below their allocated number of staffers in the 113th Congress. The Intelligence Committee reported it was working with one-third fewer staff; Budget employed 46 staffers despite a ceiling of 66; Small Business employed 29 staffers, below its ceiling of 42; while Education and Workforce reported an average of 60 staffers, despite having a ceiling of 80.
Some committee leaders argued that increased funds were necessary not only to hire new staff, but also to attract top-tier professionals who might be lured to the private sector by higher salaries.
“To attract and retain quality staff, the committee must be able to offer compensation that is at least somewhat competitive with the private sector,” said House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va. “This is particularly challenging when a disproportionate number of committee staff are attorneys with substantial experience and public policy expertise who could command higher salaries from the private sector.”
Goodlatte’s committee requested one of the largest increase in funds during the Feb. 4 hearing. Judiciary requested a 9 percent increase, which would mostly account for a judicial impeachment investigation for Alabama District Court Judge Mark Fuller, who did not resign from the bench after he was arrested for hitting his wife.
Though Judiciary is accommodating for a specific additional responsibility, several committees cited more oversight responsibilities as justification for a funding boost.
“With the increased scrutiny that the Congress wants onto [the National Security Agency] and our intelligence community, it’s going to be very tough to do it with the staff that we have,” said Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., pointed to the health care access scandal that plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs last spring, which he said “may be the largest scandal in VA history,” as justification for increased funds to hire four new investigators.
In addition to oversight, another expense often requested by committees was increased funding for more travel and field hearings. That was a major priority for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, whose chairman, Bill Shuster, R-Pa., argued that seeing infrastructure first hand was vital.
“This also allows our members to more fully understand the practical, and sometimes unpredictable, effects Washington’s policies can have on the real world. And it simply leads to better legislation,” Shuster said.
Though the Transportation and Infrastructure; Intelligence; Ways and Means; Judiciary; Small Business; Veterans’ Affairs; and Science, Space and Technology committees all requested increases in funding, a few committees requested that their funding continue at 2013 levels.
The Agriculture, Budget, Education and Workforce, and Rules committees instead argued for an end to cuts for their committees.
“If we suffer any significant funding cuts … it will have an impact on our work: We will be less flexible, we will be less transparent, and we will be diminished in the ability to meet the needs of the House of Representatives,” said House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
Eight more committees are expected to present their requests to House Administration. Among them are the committees with the highest budgets in the 113th Congress. Energy and Commerce operated with a $19 million budget in the last Congress, while Oversight and Government Reform employed a $17 million budget.
After the committees make their cases, the House Administration Committee will deliberate the requests over the coming weeks. Miller stressed that her committee will be working to do what is best to meet the Congress’s fiscal and legislative responsibilities.
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