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Legislative Branch Agencies Prepare for Pinch

Sequester contingency plans being made public mention furloughs, freezes and shutdowns

For several months, officials at legislative branch agencies have been quietly preparing for the possibility of the sequester and pondering what it would mean for their operations.

Now that the automatic spending cuts could be triggered at the end of this week, these agencies are beginning to go public with how they may be limited in serving lawmakers, staffers and visitors to Capitol Hill.

In many cases, the contingency plans also detail how thousands of legislative branch employees, like their counterparts across the federal government, could be hit by the reductions.

The Capitol Police department, for instance, is likely to cut back on overtime pay, according to Board Chairman and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer.

This could be achieved by closing entrances around the Capitol and both the House and Senate office buildings and eliminating the need to post officers at those doors for security, he said.

For staffers and visitors waiting to pass through metal detectors, it could mean longer lines at other entrances. For Capitol Police officers, it could result in longer, tiring days, with fewer opportunities to collect more money through overtime shifts.

Elsewhere, some agencies are considering furloughs.

Though the Government Printing Office has not made any decisions yet about making employees take unpaid leave, spokesman Gary Somerset said that reduced staffing levels would threaten “responsiveness, work accuracy and timeliness.”

Off Capitol Hill, Somerset continued, “thousands of private sector printers nationwide who produce work for GPO on contract would face reduced and unpredictable workloads,” the vast majority of which are small businesses.

Then there’s the Government Accountability Office, which lawmakers have in the past vehemently defended against budget cuts that could threaten its ability to identify misuse of taxpayer dollars in Washington.

GAO spokesman Chuck Young said that the sequester would force the agency to freeze the majority of hiring for the third year in a row, bringing the workforce to below 2,900 — the lowest since the 1930s — even while Congress continues to request or mandate certain reports and audits.

The Library of Congress, meanwhile, is prepared to shut down its entire operation three days out of the year and require all employees to take an additional fourth day of unpaid leave, Librarian of Congress James Billington said in an all-staff memo last week.

The Architect of the Capitol does not plan to furlough employees, spokeswoman Eva Malecki confirmed on Feb. 22.

She wouldn’t get into specifics, however, about the ways in which “projects, maintenance and staff will be affected at some level” under the sequester.

“The AOC has been focused on the possible sequester since October 2012 and has extensive plans in place,” Malecki said. “Until a sequester takes place, it would be premature to describe its impacts on our organization in further detail.”

It’s difficult to imagine how the AOC would not feel the pinch. For fiscal 2013, Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers requested $50 million for a backlog of “deferred maintenance” projects critical to preserving iconic structures and ensuring the safety of members, staff and visitors.

It is looking for $61 million to repair the Capitol Dome that, after 150 years of weather damage, is under the duress of at least 1,300 known cracks. It’s also planning for a large-scale renovation of the Cannon House Office Building in 2017. The structure needs a complete overhaul because it poses safety issues for occupants.

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