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House Committee Leaders Describe Budget Hardships

Several committees are struggling to do more with less funding after the House approved a resolution in January cutting every committee budget by 5 percent.

Many chairmen and ranking members complained to the House Administration Committee on Tuesday of being understaffed and overworked. The panel was holding its first day of a marathon hearing examining budget requests for the 112th Congress.

Though Small Business Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) told the committee that he would make do with the proposed $6.9 million budget, ranking member Nydia Velázquez disagreed. The New York Democrat said the $400,000 reduction to the committee, which already has the smallest budget of the House panels, will impede its oversight of the Small Business Administration. The SBA is riddled with poor management and fraud within its health, veterans and disaster programs, according to Velázquez.

“I’m going to be the bad cop here,” she said. “Given how long the committee has been underfunded, I’m concerned the budget may not be sufficient at a time when we should be maximizing our resources.”

Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon said his committee is restricting hiring to 68 of its 71 staff slots because of a $792,000 budget cut. With 62 Members on the committee, that worsens what is already the lowest ratio of staff to Members among House committees, the California Republican said.

“Frankly we are undermanned, being the largest committee and having the great responsibility of almost half of the spending,” McKeon said. “We’re getting by, but we could use more.”

A $15 million budget has been proposed for the Armed Services Committee, which oversees more than $600 billion in defense spending. More staffers help root out waste, ranking member Adam Smith said. The Washington Democrat reminded lawmakers that a staffer was the first to identify problems in Future Combat Systems, the Army’s multibillion-dollar weapon modernization project that is now defunct.

Further cuts would seriously hinder the Armed Services Committee’s work, its chairman and ranking member agreed.

“Further cuts would be difficult,” Smith said. “We’re stretched pretty thin at the moment. We could absorb those cuts, but we would not want to go much lower.”

Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers complained about being able to find adequate staff on his planned $10.3 million budget, particularly because of the narrow skill set and security clearance needed to work on the secretive panel.

“Every committee, including this committee, could argue that, ‘Yes we’d like to fill all our slots,’” the Michigan Republican said. “It does mean a little more work for the staff that we have, it does mean a little more overtime.”

On the bright side, ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger said, the tough times have increased cooperation between the minority and majority staffs.

“In the past, sometimes our staff weren’t working as closely as they could,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Both of our staffs are working together now. … By working together we are able to take the 5 percent cut that we all have to live with.”

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said 90 percent of the committee’s proposed $19.8 million budget is used for salaries, so he will likely have to cut some positions. Nonetheless, the Florida Republican said he will return $1 million of his committee’s budget, as he does every year. He asked the House Administration Committee to explore allowing committees to hire contractors for specific projects.

The Judiciary Committee is actually taking a 10.8 percent cut: the 5 percent called for in the House resolution plus a reduction in special staffers after the completed impeachment of U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous last session. The committee asked for $16.8 million.

“We hope we can do the same job, we hope we can work harder and smarter,” Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said. “It will involve some double time, some extra time, but we can get the job done.”

Homeland Security Chairman Peter King also asked for $16.8 million. The New York Republican said he has introduced salary cuts, but he is hoping to overcome any staff shortage by taking on cost-free detailed employees from other agencies, such as the New York Police Department, FBI, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa said he is also hoping for some detailed employees, but the California Republican is realizing savings in other ways, such as slowing the hiring process, combining positions and sharing staff.

“We’re hiring at a lower rate than we otherwise would have, and by the end of the year we’ll be down to the last penny,” he said of his proposed $21.2 million budget. “We recognize that we also have an obligation to not have so much austerity that we increase waste in government.”

Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline asked for $16.6 million. The Minnesota Republican has slowed hiring and is looking at expanding in-house operations, such as printing, to save money, he said.

Ranking member George Miller said the committee’s investigations, particularly into mining accidents, can be expensive.

“I hope that [a mining disaster] doesn’t happen, but I think on a day-to-day basis we can do that oversight,” the California Democrat said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller asked for $7.3 million, which accounts for decreased staff and fewer equipment purchases, the Florida Republican said.

Science, Space and Technology Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said his committee is tightening the supplies budget and deferring the purchase of new computers for one year on a proposed $13.6 million budget.

The hearing also featured the Ethics Committee, which requested $5.8 million; the Financial Services Committee, which requested $17.4 million; and the Agriculture Committee, which requested $12.2 million.

The House Administration Committee will hear from the Budget, Rules, Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources committees Wednesday.

The Appropriations Committee is exempt from testifying because it decides its own budget. The House Administration Committee submitted its own budget but did not testify before itself.

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