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House Democrats Face New Budget Realities

Democratic leadership will have to do more with less in the 112th Congress.

The move by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to create a new minority leadership position for Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) stretches the Caucus coffers thin. That will have job-ending implications for Democratic leadership staffers in multiple offices.

Democratic leadership aides said Clyburn’s cash supply is much like his duties: yet to be determined. But the math is complicated by the fact that a fiscal 2011 Congressional budget has not yet been passed.

In the current fiscal year, the House majority commands about $16 million of the $26 million total leadership budget. That’s divided among the party’s policy and steering committee, the Caucus, other Speaker-controlled offices and the three leadership offices, including $2.2 million for Clyburn’s Whip office.

The remaining $10 million goes to the minority: $4.6 million for the leader and $1.7 million for the Whip, while the GOP Conference, steering committee and policy committee share about $2 million, with the remainder for other expenses.

Traditionally, line-item funding levels don’t stay the same when another party takes over, even if Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep overall funding flat, said Jennifer Hing, GOP spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

“They re-evaluate what the ratio is in Congress, what have traditionally been the funding levels and what is needed, and then make a decision from there” about how to reapportion funds, she said.

While one Democratic aide said Speaker-designates generally grant the incoming minority’s budget requests (after all, they could be on the other side of the equation in as few as two years), other observers say Democrats shouldn’t expect sympathy from a Republican Party intent on slashing Congress’ price tag.

“I can’t imagine, with what Republicans have said in the ‘Pledge to America,’ with starting with budget cuts in their own backyard … that they will be amicable to increasing the minority’s budget,” Hing said.

Assuming a continuing resolution keeps the budget at $26 million, Pelosi’s job swap with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) shouldn’t affect her bottom line too much — that is, without the additional leadership post.

The Speaker’s budget for personnel expenditures this year only exceeds the Minority Leader’s budget by about $150,000. The Majority Leader’s budget for personnel expenditures for this year exceeds the Minority Whip’s budget by more than $800,000. But Clyburn shelled out $1.5 million in 2009 staff salaries and is moving into a position that, as of yet, has no budget at all.

He is “not only in the minority, but he’s in a minority in a position that didn’t even exist,” a former GOP aide said. “So he’s in a position where he’s basically going to have to go around and beg for his budget.”

If Republicans decide to cut the leadership budget, Democrats will face an even tighter squeeze. A Boehner spokesman said no decisions have been made yet.

“The Minority Leader doesn’t have many requirements that would demand the office of an Assistant Leader,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “Since it is an obvious political accommodation, it is likely that the other leadership offices will be asked to sacrifice a portion of their budgets to fund this new position for minimal staff and office space.”

That means that unlike the usual scenario, where a Speaker bows out along with office staff, the leadership personnel cuts will probably be spread across the Caucus.

That wasn’t the case in 2007, when Democrats took over the House, because outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stepped down and his staff mostly left the Hill or got jobs in other offices, according to the database LegiStorm.

Boehner, who had been Majority Leader, took the helm of the minority and much of his staff came with him. So did staff of then-Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who moved from Majority Whip to Minority Whip.

But in the Democrats’ favor this year is the fact that there’s flexibility in leadership finances. As an example, in 2008, Pelosi gave Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) the newly created position of Assistant to the Speaker to persuade him to stay in charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for one more election cycle.

When Pelosi set up the new position, she didn’t ask the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch to appropriate any more for Van Hollen.

Pelosi instead financed his office primarily out of the budgets of the Caucus and the Speaker, designating about half a million dollars in 2009 to pay for six leadership staffers, according to LegiStorm.

Van Hollen Director of Member Services C.R. Wooters, Legislative Director Aaron Schmidt and Staff Assistant Michelle Widmann were completely on the Speaker’s payroll as of June 30.

Doug Thornell, his communications director, is paid half by the Speaker and half by Van Hollen’s personal office. Deputy Director of Member Services Julie Merz is paid partly out of the Speaker’s budget but mostly out of the Caucus.

And Van Hollen’s chief of staff, Karen Robb, splits her salary among all three sources. It’s not an uncommon arrangement in either party: Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, for instance, is paid as an employee of the Republican Steering Committee.

But while the half a million dollars helped fund six employees for Van Hollen, it won’t replace what Clyburn has now. His Majority Whip office spent three times that amount on more than 20 staff salaries in 2009.

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