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Uncertainty Surrounding Member Allowances

The House Administration Committee keeps busy in the early months of a new Congress, especially with the task of doling out budgets to 435 House members and the selected committee chairmen and ranking members.

It’s typically a straightforward process. This year, however, a litany of unusual circumstances — from the 2010 census shake-ups to a possible sequester — is clouding the forecast for what these accounts might look like in the 113th Congress.

The most immediate challenge for House Administration Committee staff is calculating every Members’ Representational Allowances, the pot of money that funds everything from office expenses to constituent communications.

Every member gets the same amount to pay staff salaries, while the rest of the MRA budget is determined by the sum of three line items: the member’s travel distance between his or her district and Washington, the number of households in the member’s district and the rental rates for district offices leased through the General Services Administration.

Calculating the MRA this year is complicated, however, by the 2010 census findings that resulted in significant redistricting and reapportionment. The House Administration Committee has to wait for the final numbers to come in to crunch the variables, and it could be weeks before official budgets are announced.

To keep members afloat until then, every member has received an interim $1 million for general operating expenses.

But even once the final MRA allocations are made, the top line could change in the months ahead.

They could be slashed by 8.2 percent should Congress fail to avert the automatic spending cuts that were part of the 2011 debt limit deal. Before the 112th Congress ended, lawmakers agreed to postpone the sequester by two months.

In issuing the interim $1 million on Jan. 4, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., echoed that “the committee strongly urges Members to spend judiciously.”

And even outside the sequester, House Republican leadership could decide that MRAs should be leaner. The House cut MRA allocations 5 percent at the start of the 112th Congress in 2011 and endorsed an additional 6.4 percent cut at the start of 2012.

The scope of those cuts was the most dramatic in institutional memory, and many House offices froze staff salaries, furloughed employees and cut back on constituent services.

The uncertainty looms large for House committee budgets, also distributed by the House Administration Committee. If the sequester goes into effect on March 1, committees would also endure an 8.2 percent cut, and any leadership-driven cut to MRAs would likely extend in the same proportion to most panel allocations.

Traditionally, chairmen and ranking members control two-thirds and one-third of their committee’s overall budget, respectively. It has been hard enough with an 11.4 percent reduction in funds from the 111th Congress’ levels, House Administration Committee Democratic staff director Jamie Fleet said. “They have one-third of the money with an equal share of the workload,” Fleet said of Democrats.

Also, because Congress is operating under stopgap spending that held most government spending at fiscal 2012 levels through March, more changes could be on the way, depending on how the government is funded after March.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call in December, Miller said she was prepared to enforce whatever funding restrictions are needed.

“I come out of … Southeast Michigan, where we have gone through the most painful economic transition in my lifetime as a state,” she said. “We were No. 1 in all the categories you don’t want to be No. 1 in … so I don’t think there will be much sympathy for members of Congress to tighten their belts.”

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