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Legislative Branch Lost in Shuffle?

Members Cite Need for Oversight in Appropriations

As House and Senate appropriators negotiate a reorganization plan that could abolish several subcommittees, lawmakers questioned whether the elimination of the legislative branch panel would leave Congressional agencies — and major projects such as the Capitol Visitor Center — without sufficient oversight.

After Senate Republicans summarily rejected House leaders’ initial proposal to reduce the number of subcommittees from 13 to 10, the Appropriations chairmen agreed Wednesday to work together to restructure the panels. In addition to scrapping the legislative branch panel, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) will try to find common ground on the House plan that would also eliminate the District of Columbia subcommittee and the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies panel.

While the D.C. and VA-HUD subcommittee would be absorbed into other panels, the full Appropriations Committee would take responsibility for Congressional agencies’ budgets.

But several Senate and House lawmakers who served on their chambers’ respective legislative branch panels during the 108th Congress assert such a structure would leave agencies such as the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police, and their multimillion dollars budgets, with inadequate supervision.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the ranking member on the subcommittee led by then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) in the 108th, said the panel has historically “had an important responsibility to Capitol Hill.”

That responsibility is amplified in the ongoing construction of the CVC, Durbin noted. Appropriators have approved several budget increases for the project, whose price tag currently totals $421 million and could grow by as much as $100 million before its scheduled opening in 2006, according to a recent Government Accountability Office analysis.

“When you consider the substantial commitment we’ve made, oversight is critical,” Durbin said.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also cited concerns over the potential loss of management of the visitor center project, as well as programs within the Capitol Police Department.

“Congress needs to pay more attention to the CVC, not less,” said Kirk, a member of the legislative branch subcommittee. “We haven’t been happy with how things have gone.

“Whatever plan we have, it has to have more oversight rather than less.”

Similarly, the House panel’s ranking member, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), said he is concerned that the legislative branch bill will become a “perfunctory” measure without any serious review by appropriators.

The Virginia lawmaker also suggested that the House Administration Committee, which likewise has oversight of legislative branch agencies, could see its influence wane with the loss of its counterpart.

“I’m not sure that the House Administration Committee is going to be adequate,” Moran said. “If you lose the power of the purse, you lose the leverage.”

But House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) refuted that charge, and said change in the Appropriations structure will have little effect on his panel.

“It doesn’t give the edge up for us, or Appropriations over us,” Ney said, later adding: “Whether it’s the subcommittee or full committee, we’ll go on in the course that we’ve always gone.”

Ney noted that his panel spends “countless hours” on legislative branch issues each week, even when the committee is not holding public hearings.

“I don’t think that just reading about a bunch of public criticism creates oversight,” Ney said. “At House Administration, we conduct vigorous oversight. We just don’t do it with a lot of public sound bites.”

At least one member of the House Appropriations subcommittee, however, believes that eliminating the subcommittee could be beneficial.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) said striking the subcommittee could free up time to conduct oversight hearings of the legislative branch agencies.

“Oversight is one of the greatest difficulties we have, simply because of time,” Tiahrt said.

Another subcommittee member, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), declined to discuss the potential impact of the plan, but acknowledged the importance of the panel’s current oversight role. “It’s critical,” LaHood said.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chaired the House legislative branch subcommittee last Congress but may see his post eliminated, similarly declined to comment citing the ongoing nature of the reorganization.

In an interview Tuesday, Lewis, who has remained tight-lipped about the reorganization, acknowledged the need to maintain oversight of the legislative branch agencies, but did not discuss the issue in detail.

“All of the dialogue regarding the East Front and security issues … deserve special attention,” he said. Lewis, who spent a decade as the ranking member of the legislative branch subcommittee until 1992, added: “I’ve had some experience with the legislative branch.”

Representatives for several legislative branch agencies also declined to comment on the issue citing the unfinished nature of the reorganization as well as policies prohibiting the discussion of budget issues before those requests are submitted to Congress.

“We’re not going to comment on something that’s not finalized,” an AOC spokeswoman said in reference to the subcommittee structure.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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