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Sequester Will Hurt on the Hill

Members of Congress nearly uniformly decry the threat of sequestration and the effect that $109 billion in automatic spending cuts next year would have on government operations, particularly the military.

But if they are unsuccessful in heading off the sequester when the House and Senate reconvene in a post-election session, lawmakers will not need to look beyond their own offices to see the effects. Because Congress did not exempt itself from the deficit-reduction mechanism written into last year’s debt limit deal, funding for the legislative branch is in line for an 8.2 percent cut.

A September report to Congress from the Office of Management and Budget concluded the sequester would trim $101 million from House office salaries and expenses next year and $32 million from Senators’ personnel and office expenses, based on fiscal 2012 spending levels. None of the fiscal 2013 appropriations bills have been enacted.

Sequestration would be particularly hard on House offices, where budgets for staff salaries and other operating expenses – known as Members’ Representational Allowances – have already been reduced by 11.4 percent during the 112th Congress.

“The majority of offices said in late 2011 that, for 2012, they were going to be cutting to the bone,” said Rick Shapiro, a former executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. Now a consultant to the organization, Shapiro  interviewed dozens of lawmakers and chiefs of staff last year to compile a report and manual on how House offices can prioritize in the face of further cuts.

“They’re not replacing staff, they’ve stopped doing certain things they’ve done routinely, like town hall meetings. They’re not allowing staff to travel back to the district, or they’re limiting times a Member can go back,” Shapiro said. “What are the prospects for 2013? My guess is, this time around, a lot of offices are going to say, ‘There’s nothing left to cut. Now every time we cut, we’re cutting services and reducing the capacity of this office.'”

The legislative branch budget, established by the smallest of the dozen annual  appropriations bills, funds staff salaries  and office operating expenses. It also supports the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol’s office and the Government Accountability Office. And then there’s the Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the budgetary impact of legislation.

Unless Congress and the president agree on an alternative to the sequester, all of those budgets would be cut by 8.2 percent, according to the OMB.

The legislative branch budget has already taken deep cuts in the past two years, with lawmakers – particularly in the House – using the appropriations bill as an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to lead by example in the deficit reduction effort.

But those responsible for Congressional operations and maintenance of the Capitol complex say additional spending cuts will be difficult.

The Library of Congress urgently needs  additional shelving for its vast book collection, but does not have funding for an  appropriate off-site facility. The library’s funding for salaries and expenses would take a $34 million hit under the sequester, based on the fiscal 2012 spending level, according to the OMB.

The Capitol Dome is deteriorating after more than a century of weather damage, but funding for that project has also fallen by the wayside.

It’s not easy to quantify how life would be different on Capitol Hill for Members and aides, or for lawmakers’ constituents, after a sequester. But the effects would not  be good, stakeholders said.

“We’re going to find out what it means,” House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said. “I’ve always thought the legislative branch was a pretty important function, as opposed to many different executive branch agencies, and if sequestration occurred, I think we would sustain cuts that would be felt.”

“It’s going to have an impact on us,” agreed Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “The important thing to recognize is this isn’t just about defense. There are an awful lot of other areas of government, Congress being one of them.”

The sequester could have a very tangible effect on life on Capitol Hill if it reduces the ability of the Capitol Police force to maintain its presence and strength across the campus.

In recent years, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have committed to, at the very least, flat-lining the police budget in recognition of security concerns. Many thought that doing so was particularly necessary in the aftermath of the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz. Sequestration could essentially override that prioritization. The OMB calculated that the sequester would reduce Capitol Police salary expenditures by $23 million and other expenses by $5 million.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said reducing current spending by  more than 8 percent would not affect the force’s ability to protect the Capitol and its Members, staffers and visitors. “But we might have to do different things in the long term, like closing certain doors to office buildings, which is inconvenient. But everyone will still be safe up here,” Gainer said.

Inconvenience would likely be the biggest change, he predicted.

“There are a lot of services my agency provides and that will be affected [such as] … the response time for when a computer can be fixed, finding out the availability of studios,” Gainer said. “People will have to adjust to business at a different pace. The quality of services would ultimately suffer a little bit, but that’s what goes along with prioritization.”

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