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Campus Notebook: Parties Renew Spat Over Use of Committee Funds

After a public fight in October over how Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee may spend their part of the panel’s budget, a quieter second round is brewing over the same issue.

Exacerbating the situation is a dispute over whether a formal agreement was reached last fall to avoid such disagreements in the future.

“The Democratic staff of the Committee on House Administration is currently examining the specifics of the situation,” Jamie Fleet, Democratic staff director of the panel charged with allocating and overseeing House committee budgets, said in a statement to Roll Call. “The latest decision … could continue a troubling pattern of denying the minority their rights.”

Earlier this month, Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), ranking member on the panel’s Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives, requested a field hearing or a Democratic-hosted forum on banks that fail to maintain abandoned properties.

With the issue being particularly salient in Chicago, Cummings and Davis wanted to travel there to conduct their events.

But on Friday, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) denied the request on grounds that a full committee hearing on the issue would be better suited for Capitol Hill than Chicago.

Issa also wrote in a letter to the two Democrats that there was no committee precedent for holding minority-sponsored forums off-campus.

“The use of committee funds for public events outside Washington, which are not defined in committee or House rules but are likely to be perceived as an official rule-based committee function, has not been prior practice of this committee and does not constitute an official purpose for which taxpayers’ funds have been appropriated,” Issa wrote.

Democrats contend that Issa is unfairly policing their money in violation of an agreement all chairmen make at the start of each Congress to allow the minority party to control one-third of the budget for various expenses, including work-related travel.

A similar issue came up three months ago, when Issa refused to reimburse Davis for travel expenses incurred during a federal drug control policy forum he had arranged in Illinois.

At that time, Democrats on the House Administration Committee intervened, going public in condemning Issa’s decision and demanding he explain his actions.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Democrats also say that their counterparts on the House Administration panel were able to facilitate an agreement for dealing with future disputes over the use of travel funds. Issa’s actions run afoul of that understanding, they contend.

“Frankly, I don’t understand [Issa’s] response,” Cummings said in a statement to Roll Call. “With the help of the House Administration Committee, we spent months negotiating a process that everyone agreed to, but now Chairman Issa appears to be disregarding it. By refusing to honor the agreement, Chairman Issa is preventing the committee from addressing one of the many significant consequences of the foreclosure crisis.”

Cummings spokeswoman Ashley Etienne would not elaborate on the specifics of that agreement.

Frederick Hill, communications director for Issa, said that although there were “discussions” regarding a new policy, no formal consensus was ever reached.

Democratic staff on the House Administration Committee did not comment on the status of the conversations, and the panel’s Republican office did not respond to requests for comment.

Report Shows Effects of Tighter House Budgets

The Sunlight Foundation has released a report showing that nearly 1,000 staff positions in Congressional offices were eliminated from 2009 to 2011.

The report’s author, Lee Drutman, said the numbers could indicate a trend of Members seeking increased outside help from lobbyists and interest groups now that fewer in-house staffers are around to draft legislation and develop policy proposals.

“Congress is essentially reducing its own confidence by getting rid of staff and resources,” Drutman said. “It’s making it harder for Congressional staffers to do their jobs when they have fewer people and resources. Congressional offices are going to be more reliant on outside help, which comes in the form of special interest groups and lobbyists.”

The House last year voted to cut its office budgets by 5 percent; this year they will be reduced by 6.4 percent.

Members who have previously weighed in on the possible effects that House budget cuts could have on day-to-day operations were mixed on whether the Sunlight Foundation’s grim outlook will carry any clout.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said it does. The Illinois Democrat said the cuts will lead to “fewer staffers for … vast Congressional district[s] and fewer experts, which means Members of Congress and professional staff are going to have to rely on ‘experts in the industry,’ who obviously have ulterior motives and in the long term will undermine the effectiveness of our democracy.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly said that although the diminishing in-house resources created a “risk” of greater reliance on outside help, it was not something he’s seen in many offices.

“I hope I don’t,” the Virginia Democrat added.

The group cautioned that the data used for its study was supplied by House offices and suggested that it be used only for examining general trends.

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