House re­turns with merely a trim around the edges

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY LUKE ROSIAK

The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives that re­turned Sept. 6 is 10 per­cent leaner than a year prior — the re­sult of a pair of man­dates re­quir­ing largely sym­bolic re­duc­tions in spend­ing to the way it goes about its busi­ness en­acted since John A. Boehner, Ohio Repub­li­can, as­sumed the speaker’s gavel in Jan­uary.

The re­duc­tions have re­sulted in raises for chiefs of staff, while the pay­roll for low-level aides was slashed. The largest sav­ings, in mass mail­ings to con­stituents, may have come not from re­newed fi­nan­cial pru­dence so much as tech­nol­ogy.

Mr. Boehner also passed on some easy plans to cut spend­ing on lux­u­ries that were brought to his at­ten­tion, such as nearly $1 mil­lion a year on bot­tled water.

With jobs a pri­mary con­cern to Amer­i­cans, the pro­fes­sion­als tasked with the is­sue on the House Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee saw their bud­get shrink to $1.5 mil­lion last quar­ter from $1.9 mil­lion a year ago, while the bud­get for its se­cu­rity force rose by a greater amount.

Ac­count­abil­ity could suf­fer. The bud­get for the House ethics com­mit­tee, which in­ves­ti­gates wrong­do­ing by mem­bers, was cut more than 30 per­cent, three times that of most other of­fices.

With less fed­eral money doled out, the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee shed nearly 50 staffers, shrink­ing its bud­get by $2 mil­lion. In many ways, that makes sense, ob­servers say. But with in­creased com­pe­ti­tion for the smaller pot of money, they won­der whether of­fices are equipped to prop­erly over­see pro­grams whose bud­gets are thou­sands of times higher than those of con­gres­sional of­fices.

Shar­ing the pain

“The think­ing is, if we’re go­ing to ask other fed­eral agen­cies to trim, we’ve got to feel it, too,” said Dino diSanto, chief of staff to Rep. Steven C. La­Tourette, Ohio Repub­li­can, who ran one of the lean­est House of­fices last quar­ter and flies home out of Bal­ti­more Washington In­ter­na­tional Thur­good Mar­shall Air­port in­stead of Ron­ald Rea­gan Washington National Air­port be­cause air­fares are cheaper.

The sym­bolic cuts have had an im­pact on the young work­ers who carry out the day-to-day busi­ness of leg­is­lat­ing, but they have not been felt equally.

House salaries amounted to $130 mil­lion last quar­ter, more than $7 mil­lion be­low the pe­riod a year prior. About $140,000 came from a re­duc­tion in the amount spent on in­terns, which fell to a lit­tle more than $500,000. Pay to chiefs of staff rose about $700,000, to $14 mil­lion.

Rep. Wil­liam Lacy Clay, Mis­souri Demo­crat, ac­com­plished a $46,000 pay­roll sav­ings for the quar­ter by pair­ing $2,000 re­duc­tions to checks writ­ten to most low-level staff with a $5,000 raise at the chief of staff level, pay­roll records in­di­cate.

Mr. Clay’s of­fice did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Mary­land Demo­crat, cut pay­roll 13 per­cent com­pared with a year prior. “Some of that is, we’ve brought on younger staffers, and we pay com­men­su­rate with ex­pe­ri­ence,” said spokesman Ben Gerdes. The of­fice was among those that stopped pay­ing in­terns.

“There’s an irony to the in­tern sit­u­a­tion,” said Daniel Schu­man, pol­icy coun­sel at the Sun­light Foun­da­tion. “Be­ing an in­tern is the en­tree to work­ing on Capi­tol Hill, and as you shift to more and more un­paid in­terns, it’s also a so­cioe­co­nomic shift. You ei­ther have to im­me­di­ately get a sec­ond job, which is dif­fi­cult, or you have to come from a wealthy back­ground so your fam­ily can foot the bill. You’re lim­it­ing the pool of peo­ple who can have dif­fer­ent perspectives.”

Lit­tle lux­u­ries

Mean­while, lux­u­ries that could be cut with lit­tle risk of un­in­tended con­se­quences were left alone.

Rules pro­hibit tax­payer money from be­ing spent on bot­tled water at most fed­eral build­ings, but not at the Capi­tol. House of­fices have long spent nearly $1 mil­lion a year on bot­tled water. Tap water in the Capi­tol is checked reg­u­larly and is safe to drink, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chi­tect of the Capi­tol.

“I read with great in­ter­est of your de­ci­sion to cut the bud­get for House of­fices,” Ge­orge S. Hawkins, gen­eral man­ager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Au­thor­ity, wrote to Mr. Boehner in Jan­uary. “If fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity is your aim, I should point out that our water costs about a penny a gal­lon. Bot­tled water costs hundreds of times more.”

The water au­thor­ity of­fered free re­fill­able bot­tles to re­place jugs de­liv­ered by trucks and the test­ing of pipes to al­le­vi­ate any con­cer ns about water qual­ity in the his­toric build­ings. Mr. Boehner ’s of­fice never re­sponded.

“It would have been an easy step to take,” said Alan Hey­mann, a spokesman for the D.C. water au­thor­ity.

His­toric changes

The page pro­gram, which paid high school stu­dents to ferry doc­u­ments for mem­bers and gave some law­mak­ers their first taste of pol­i­tics, will not re­turn for the first time.

This year also ap­peared to mark a death knell for an­other tra­di­tion dat­ing to the ear­li­est days of the repub­lic. The big­gest sav­ings came from tax­payer­funded mail­ings to con­stituents, known as frank­ing. The amount spent on print­ing and send­ing mail­ings de­clined dra­mat­i­cally, by $10 mil­lion in the sec­ond quar­ter com­pared with a year prior.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Repub­li­can, slimmed his of­fice bud­get 40 per­cent by cut­ting back on mail­ings. The hundreds of thou­sands of dol­lars he spent on mail­ings in a few months last year was more than the en­tire pay­roll for his Washington and district staffs.

Mr. Buchanan “un­der­stands the need to rein in spend­ing and re­store fis­cal san­ity to Washington,” his of­fice said in a state­ment.

Rep. Keith El­li­son, Min­nesota Demo­crat, spent $130,000 on mail­ers in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2010, and nearly noth­ing last quar­ter.

Franked mail is cher­ished by mem­bers be­cause it gives a boost to in­cum­bents by in­creas­ing name recog­ni­tion with­out re­quir­ing cam­paign funds. Nearly all con­gres­sional mail is sent by House mem­bers, who have to de­fend their seats ev­ery two years, rather than sen­a­tors, who face elec­tion once ev­ery six years.

But in the era of the tea party, when minu­tiae is scru­ti­nized for signs of ex­cess, franked mail, which must in­clude a no­tice that it is “Pre­pared, Pub­lished, and Mailed at Tax­payer Ex­pense,” risked be­com­ing a li­a­bil­ity more than an as­set.

When Rep. Frank C. Guinta, New Hamp­shire Repub­li­can, held a town-hall meet­ing re­cently to seek in­put on the largest is­sues of the day, the fo­rum was in­ter­rupted by an an­gry man who in­stead wanted to talk about junk mail.

“Let’s go back to the costs on the glossy!” the man yelled, re­fer­ring to a mail­ing that used more ex­pen­sive shiny pa­per, The Washington Post re­ported.

In fis­cal 2006, con­gres­sional mail amounted to nearly 1 per­cent of the $3.79 bil­lion bud­get for the en­tire leg­isla­tive branch, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice. The mail­ings have been on the wane for more than a decade; that amount was less than a third of the $113 mil­lion they cost in 1988.

“With the ad­vent of email and Face­book and your web­site, there are other ways to get that in­for­ma­tion out,” said Mr. diSanto. “One of the rea­sons we’ve been able to run lean is we don’t do any mail­ings.”

In an in­sti­tu­tion laden with his­tory, items that are anachro­nis­tic and in­ef­fi­cient rep­re­sent a ripe crop of low-hang­ing fruit. In July, House mem­bers agreed not to dis­trib­ute the vo­lu­mi­nous Con­gres­sional Record and copies of leg­is­la­tion in pa­per form. But Congress still spends much on old-fash­ioned and cum­ber­some trap­pings.

“There are all kinds of doc­u­ments the House clerk prints in­stead of just putting online. You can go there and pho­to­copy them for 10 cents a page, but then they have to pay to have a staff per­son there and a room,” said Mr. Schu­man. “Of­fices can get mail de­liv­ered three or four times a day. Does that re­ally make sense?”


Drink­ing from the tax­payer tap: Se­nate Fa­cil­i­ties Ser vices technician Car­los Abarca de­liv­ers cases of bot­tled water to the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee in July. One in­ter­nal cost-sav­ing mea­sure Congress hasn’t yet availed it­self of is to opt in­stead for tap water.

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