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House Approps Nixes Fence

House appropriators voted Wednesday to prohibit the use of public tax dollars for a security fence around the Capitol, blocking the advancement of an idea that had already been informally rejected by lawmakers in both chambers in recent months.

The measure, passed by voice vote, is included as an amendment in the $2.7 billion fiscal 2005 legislative branch appropriations bill approved by the full Appropriations panel.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer had raised the possibility of installing an extensive security fence — surrounding both the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings — during Appropriations hearings in both chambers earlier this year.

Lawmakers had criticized the idea, which has been discussed several times in the past two decades, asserting that it would close off Congress to the public.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who sponsored the amendment, said a security fence would create “essentially a private grounds for Congress.”

“If we put a fence around this place, we are going to really hurt the image and understanding of what a democracy is all about,” Farr added.

House lawmakers approved a handful of other amendments to the spending bill — which freezes funding at fiscal 2004 levels — ranging from a study of dental and vision benefits for Members and staff to new limits on compensation for House employees.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, argued that the spending bill “shows fiscal restraint.” The House version of the bill, which does not include more than $825,000 in Senate operations funds, totals nearly $4 million below the legislative branch agencies’ original requests.

“They will receive less than they requested but enough to carry out their primary functions,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Among the more contentious topics Wednesday afternoon, the Appropriations panel agreed to study the expansion of vision and dental care benefits for Members and staff, a measure House lawmakers blocked during the fiscal 2004 appropriations process.

Following a lengthy debate, lawmakers approved an amendment offered by Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) to include both Members and staff in the survey, estimated to cost $175,000. (Earlier in the hearing, the panel approved an amendment sponsored by Moran that would have limited the survey to House staff.)

In response to concerns raised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers over expanding benefits for Members, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asserted that many Members are in need of health benefits for their families, as well as themselves.

“Don’t be so afraid about looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What do Members need?’” Lewis urged his colleagues, who passed the measure on a voice vote.

Once the survey is completed, the House Administration Committee will determine the specific types of programs to be offered.

“I’m pleased that it went through,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who along with the panel’s ranking member, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), voiced support for the amendment in a June 23 letter to the legislative branch subcommittee.

The Appropriations panel also agreed to call for a study of the appointment process for legislative branch agency chiefs, part of a seven-item manager’s amendment put forth by Kingston.

The measure calls for a review of the “various laws, processes, and practices governing the selection, appointment, removal, compensation, and term of service” of officials in the Office of Compliance, the Congressional Budget Office, the Architect of the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office and the General Accounting Office.

“Their appointment process and their terms are something we should study and review,” Kingston said. The Georgia lawmaker noted that although the agencies serve both chambers, the House has little input into many of the appointments, which are made by the executive branch and approved in the Senate.

In addition, Kingston’s amendment called for GAO to conduct a study of CBO, Congressional Research Service, the Joint Economic Committee and the Joint Taxation Committee to determine whether the agencies overlap in their responsibilities.

In a separate amendment which failed in a voice vote, Kingston called for the JEC’s funding to be halved, to $2.1 million from its current $4 million budget.

The seven-item manager’s amendment also included a provision limiting the amount of compensation House staff may receive to a level equal to the annual salary received by House and Senate lawmakers, which is currently $154,000.