House Feeling Budget Squeeze

Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:14pm

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) can’t afford to hire a deputy chief of staff.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) has scaled back weekly events where a guest talks shop with staff over snacks and has eliminated the staffer who organizes it.

And members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus worry they might not have the money to pay their executive director.

These are just some of the ways in which House lawmakers have cut costs in the 11 months since they voted to slash their office budgets by 5 percent.

By the end of next year, House Members will have reduced their budgets by a total of 11.4 percent.

In June, the House passed a legislative branch spending bill that made a 6.4 percent cut to the 2012 Members’ Representational Allowances, which fund staff salaries and operating expenses.

House Republican leadership spearheaded this effort to “lead by example” in the broader campaign to cut spending across the federal government. It has caused some outcry among Democrats who accuse Republicans of hobbling Congressional offices for a symbolic gesture.

“Conservative ideologues are just fine with this because they want to limit the role of government in the lives of people,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus member. “This is just an excuse for them to do as little as possible.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) agreed, saying that the cuts are hurting voters back home by limiting the services their Congressional offices offer.

“I see this as [my constituents’] money,” she said.

Despite the partisan split, Democrats and Republicans alike told Roll Call they are finding it hard to implement the cuts, regardless of whether they voted for them.

If there is one thing both sides can agree on, it’s this: It’s hard to do more with less.

During the course of compiling its “manual” for how House offices can prioritize cost-cutting measures in the 112th Congress, the Congressional Management Foundation found that complaints about the difficulty of implementing budget cuts did not fall neatly along party lines.

The authors of the report, scheduled to be released today, found that while chiefs of staff and office managers surveyed agreed that the cuts for 2011 were “manageable,” they had concerns about the larger cuts looming in 2012.

In fact, the pressures of finalizing office budgets for next year with fewer resources have become so great that Congressional aides urged CMF to complete its report faster than usual.

“I think they’re scared,” said Rick Shapiro, a former executive director of CMF who consults for the organization and took the lead on producing the study. “They recognize that this is not just ‘cut a little here, nip a little there, if we squeeze a range of areas it will go away.’ … With 11.4 percent of your budget gone, you really cannot do all that you were doing in 2011 and 2010.”

Across the board, Democrats and Republicans say their biggest challenge is paying staff salaries. Many offices have eliminated positions through attrition, while most agree that raises and bonuses are out of the question.

“I’m [trying] to keep my staff paid on slave wages,” Moran said. “Normally you get what you pay for, and in this case, I’m getting a whole lot more than I’m paying for.”

Underpaying Congressional staffers could lead to problems with retention, especially as young, bright aides look to the private sector for greater compensation — a reality many Members fear.

“I imagine we will have some staff retention problems because they can make more money someplace else, and who wouldn’t want to do that?” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said.

“You lose a lot of institutional memory and expertise when you’re inviting such high staff turnover,” Kingston agreed, adding that his office is now relying heavily on the manpower of interns who are paid little or nothing at all.

There are other ways to save money in a tight-budget environment besides freezing staff salaries or eliminating positions, the report emphasizes. It offers 46 ways that Members can save money, such as using email for corresponding with constituents rather than franked mail, moving district offices to lower-cost real estate and seeking commitments from outside vendors not to increase their fees for 2012.

A senior aide for Schakowsky said her office is cutting back on staff travel and retreats, relying more heavily on email and “hoarding offices supplies.”

Many lawmakers maintain that it is not easy to serve constituents without a full staff.

“Our casework is off the charts because of human need,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), adding that caseworkers are needed to speak to each constituent individually and that “a robocall won’t do it.”

“The people who end up getting hurt are constituents,” she said.