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Appropriators Argue Over House Office Budgets, Defense of Marriage Act Case

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday endorsed the fiscal 2013 legislative branch spending bill after a heated debate over how lawmakers should spend their office budgets.

The panel approved the draft bill by voice vote. It would decrease funding for House operations by $34 million, about 1 percent below last year’s level. The $3.3 billion measure does not include Senate expenses, which will be added by that chamber later.

During the markup, lawmakers clashed over whether Member offices should be allowed to spend taxpayer money on Internet ads that increase traffic to their websites.

The panel rejected an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would bar lawmakers from using their Members’ Representational Allowances to pay to promote their events or activities online. MRAs include salaries, travel funds and other office expenses.

Flake cited one Member — whom he refrained from naming — who bought a Google ad so that the Member’s name popped up anytime someone searched “raising debt ceiling” during last summer’s debate over the issue. The price tag, according to Flake’s office, was $4.70 per click.

Such advertising, he said, should be prohibited. “With Internet advertising, the potential for abuse is so, so much greater because of microtargeting,” Flake said.

Panel leaders said the amendment could hinder lawmakers from communicating with constituents. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, also argued that lawmakers should be free to spend their office budget how they wish, so long as the spending is in accordance with House rules.

The panel rejected Flake’s proposal by voice vote. But Flake said he intends to offer the amendment again when the House takes up the spending bill.

The committee also defeated by voice vote a second Flake amendment that would require Members to insert disclaimers into leaflets sent to constituents that detail how much Members spent on the mailing campaign.

Current law requires Members to notify readers that mail was “prepared, published and mailed at taxpayers’ expense” in at least 7-point font in a “prominent place” on envelopes or wrappers.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said the proposal would have a chilling effect on lawmakers’ communications with those they represent.

“These nickel-and-dime things are not going to make a dent in the deficit, but it sure does damage the institution,” he said.

DOMA Dispute

Panel members also tussled over whether the Office of General Counsel should pay a law firm to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman that was enacted with broad bipartisan support and signed by President Bill Clinton.

The office has spent about $750,000 to defend the law, according to panel members.

“In a time of economic challenges, it is high time we recognize the truth of the matter and reserve those federal dollars for a more worthy cause,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit declared part of the law unconstitutional Thursday.

If House GOP leaders decide to continue defending the law, the next step could be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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