Budget Cuts Come to Congress

Billy House

While lawmakers enjoy the constitutionally protected luxury of not having to worry about their own pay or jobs being impacted by the sequester cuts they helped to impose, their staff, office expenses, and committee budgets have no such protection.

As a result, members of Congress are being forced to mull over some of the same types of tough budget cuts that agency and department heads are now considering, albeit on a smaller scale.

Ultimately, the sequester will usher in an 8.2 percent reduction to individual office and committee allowances over the seven months remaining in this fiscal year. This will come on top of 11 percent reductions already imposed on House members from fiscal 2010 levels. The Senate has seen a cut of at least 6 percent since then.

The money that House members receive for their offices, known as the “members’ representational allowance,” now ranges from $1.2 million to $1.5 million, based on regional differences and other variables. That means House members could have to make downward adjustments of about $98,400 to $123,000.

In the Senate, allocations for the senators’ official personnel and office expense accounts range from $2.9 million to $4.6 million, meaning offices could have to find cuts from $237,800 to $377,200.

“While the salaries of members of Congress enjoy the protection of the Constitution, Congress is visiting pain on its own employees, the American public, and the U.S. economy alike,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

As a result, Norton said she will donate one day of her congressional pay (the base annual salary for members of both chambers is $174,000) for each day federal employees are furloughed. She says she will do that, in part, to try to maintain the same level of constituent service that her office currently provides, as well as to help support furloughed federal employees through the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund.

A study done by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation in the fall of 2011, based on interviews with top staffers from more than 90 congressional offices, suggested lawmakers have a universe of options to cut costs. And those options go far beyond furloughs or allowing staff vacancies to go dark, even though staff salaries often account for more than 60 percent of office budgets.

Among the options were closing district offices and reducing town halls, eliminating staff bonuses, shifting more constituent communication to e-mail, and even eliminating the ability of Washington-based staff to travel to the member’s district.

Other suggestions included buying office supplies in bulk commercially rather than from the House Stationery Store; eliminating the purchase of congressional calendars for constituents or bottled water for offices; and reducing the purchase of computer hardware and upgrades. Committee chairs might consider whether to curtail field hearings or even investigations, senior House aides say.

“Each member must decide how he or she is going to absorb the cuts,” said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., chairwoman of the House Administration Committee.

The panel’s regulations, she said, “give members the flexibility to determine how they allocate their official allowances, whether that number expands or contracts—much like a business.” Miller said her committee will simply provide guidance, as it did last week by issuing answers to frequently asked questions.

How this might impact legislative operations—including constituent services and outreach efforts in congressional districts—is yet to be seen, of course. But already, there are different approaches and attitudes emerging from lawmakers.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., has announced that she will take a self-imposed cut of 8.4 percent from her monthly salary for each month of the sequester, with the returned wages to be given back to the U.S. Treasury and taxpayers.

And even before it became clear last week the sequester cuts would kick in, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced he was returning roughly $600,000 of his office budget to the U.S. Treasury, on top of the $500,000 he returned last year to help pay off the federal debt.

Meanwhile, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said he is prepared to address the required cuts because he already has been operating his office as frugally as possible, drawing upon his experience as a nursing home and health administrator.

Of course, some lawmakers will be facing the decision whether to furlough staffers—and which aides must take those unpaid days off. Aides in some offices say their bosses have already been reluctant to fill empty positions in recent months.

The research done by the Congressional Management Foundation in late 2011, when members were facing office allowance cutbacks that averaged $90,000, focused on staff cuts and offered various options.