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Congress’ Agencies Brace for Sequester

Congress has for the past few years used the Legislative Branch appropriations bill to set an example of its own willingness to make sacrifices in the name of fiscal discipline, slashing line items to historic lows and boasting of its ability to do more with less.

With the sequester set to take effect on Friday, however, lawmakers are almost certainly bound to see just what it means when these deep cuts are submerged by even deeper cuts to programs that fund the operations of Congress.

This week, members of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee got a preview of how such cuts would affect congressional support agencies’ day-to-day functions and, in turn, their mandate to serve the members.

“It could be that we see the difference,” Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., the new chairman of the subcommittee, said in a brief interview with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. “Every day someone asks me about the [Members’ Representational Allowance] that’s already been cut quite a bit  . . .  the Capitol Dome has 1,300 cracks in it  . . .  we’re neglecting stuff like that.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the panel heard testimony from the heads of the Government Accountability Office, the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress and the Congressional Budget Office on their sequester preparations and fiscal 2014 budget proposals. Next week, the panel hears from the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.

So far, members have learned the sequester will result in hiring freezes and staff reductions that could stunt agencies’ responsiveness.

GAO Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said on Tuesday that decreased funding levels have already diminished, and will only continue to diminish, the GAO’s effectiveness as the watchdog for waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

With the size of its workforce at 1935 levels and furloughs possible, the GAO has also had to cut back on resources it uses to conduct the analysis necessary for Congress to stay informed on many issues, such as travel expenses and the ability to partner with outside experts for specialized input.

The CBO, another agency on which Congress relies for scoring and analyzing the fiscal implications of legislation, could be forced to lay off employees under the long-term effects of the sequester, should attrition prove unable to reduce the size of the full-time workforce to what can be accommodated under current funding levels.

Acting Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks suggested that, under the sequester, a funding shortfall could occur as the GPO struggles to meet congressional printing and publishing mandates. Congress would ultimately have to appropriate the funding to offset that shortfall, though money for that might not be available in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, potential staffing reductions could affect timeliness, responsiveness and accuracy.

And the Library of Congress will impose four furlough days for its staff, three of which will result in full closures of all library operations — likely the first time since the government shutdown of the mid-1990s. In addition to providing resource materials to Congress on request, the library also houses the Congressional Research Service, another agency lawmakers rely on for analysis to help them craft legislation or to bolster their positions.

The Architect of the Capitol will likely next week discuss deferred maintenance projects that threaten the integrity of historic structures and invoke life safety issues for inhabitants of the House and the Senate office buildings.

The Capitol Police department is expected to discuss security challenges with limited resources.

It’s unusual timing for appropriations subcommittees to be hearing testimony for the fiscal 2014 cycle absent a budget and in advance of the sequester, which is still unknown territory despite educated guesses about its implications.

“We are already under a tight legislative schedule, made worse by the tardiness of the president’s budget request,” Alexander explained. “It is essential that the annual appropriation process begin, in order to help ensure the timely consideration of our bills.”

Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that she hoped her panel would be summoning the support agencies to testify soon.

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