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House Officials Ask for Better Staff Benefits

House officials asked Members to fund an array of projects Wednesday, from updating the electronic voting system to increasing benefits for staffers.

House appropriators were mostly positive about the plans, despite price tags in the millions of dollars. But they also warned officials that a tight budget meant tough decisions.

“We’re not going to be able to do as much as we’d like to,— said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on fiscal 2010 funding for the offices of Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller and House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood.

Chief among the requests was $33 million to improve benefits for House staffers.

Right now, House employees don’t get the same benefits afforded those in the executive branch, including tuition reimbursement and child care subsidies. Beard said even legislative branch agencies, such as the Library of Congress, offer better benefits packages than the House.

“So many of our employees are young people just starting out,— he said. “What we want to do is have a benefits package that convinces employees to stay.—

But Members seemed most excited at the prospect of updating the House’s electronic voting system, which is more than 30 years old.

Miller asked the subcommittee for $6 million to help update the aging system. Members were receptive to the request; almost two years ago, the tally board suddenly went blank during a procedural vote. Its hardware is so fragile that technicians must use gloves when handling it.

Congress has already appropriated $500,000 toward the effort, and Miller said that money will pay for new “summary boards.— The boards feature information on bills on the floor, but some Members claim they are largely unhelpful.

Miller said she hopes to install new — and more informative — boards over the August recess. Members will have a chance to look over some samples on June 4, she said.

“I think it’s clear that in the House of Representatives for the last two or three years, we’ve had a number of different problems with the voting system,— Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said. “Six million dollars really seems like a reasonable expenditure.—

But Wasserman Schultz was less positive when addressing Beard, grilling him on the rising prices in the House’s cafeteria.

In two years, the average bill has gone up 30 percent, she said. The House also makes a larger commission off the sales than ever before — 3 percent, or about $1 million a year.

“I don’t think it’s fair to our employees,— she said.

But Beard said the only way to decrease prices is to subsidize the meals. The money kicked back to the House is invested right back into the cafeterias, he said. More than half pays for greening efforts, such as biodegradable cups and local food.

The cafeteria’s higher prices, he said, are the result of rising food costs nationwide — something he couldn’t anticipate when he originally hired Restaurant Associates to run them.

“I don’t think anyone could have anticipated in 2005 and 2006 that food prices would go up in 2007 and 2008,— he said.

Beard is asking for the lowest funding increase among the House officers, requesting just 6 percent more than his current budget.

Miller and Livingood, meanwhile, are asking for double-digit increases; Livingood requested 20 percent more funding, while Miller asked for 23 percent.

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