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Committee Leaders Face Deeper Cuts as They Enter Session Budget Requests

Leaders of House committees got a stark reminder Monday that times are tough all over as they line up to testify before the House Administration Committee regarding their budget requests.

Late Monday afternoon, the House Administration Committee circulated the news that Members’ Representational Allowances, the pot of money members use to, among other things, travel back and forth to their districts, were taking almost a double-digit cut from what members thought they would be getting as recently as last month, thanks to the sequester.

“MRA authorizations must be adjusted to reflect the reduced spending levels detailed in Friday’s sequester order issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). To achieve the mandatory reduction, the 2013 MRA authorization each Member received February 15, 2013 has been reduced by 8.2 percent. Each office will receive a follow-up letter from the Committee confirming the exact amount of its adjusted 2013 MRA,” House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. MRAs are authorized for the calendar year and vary according to a host of factors, including how far away a member’s district is from Washington, D.C.

While the letter was directed toward members’ offices, it also served notice that committees, which have mostly seen double-digit cuts to their budgets in the past two years and are bracing for sequester-related hits, will face an austerity-minded panel as they plead for their own budget requests this week.

Near the start of each session of Congress, the House Administration Committee summons almost all of the House committee chairmen and ranking members to defend their budget requests. This tradition will take place Tuesday and Wednesday, with each committee’s top Republican and top Democrat getting about 15 minutes to explain how much money they want, what they would do with that money and why they deserve that full amount over other panels.

The House Administration Committee typically reconvenes a few weeks later to announce how it has decided to distribute the funds.

Since taking House control in 2011, Republicans have by and large led the charge to “lead by example” in their campaign to cut spending.

At the start of the 112th Congress, House Administration passed a resolution that allocated $284.8 million among 20 House committees for the Jan. 3, 2011, to Jan. 3, 2013, period — a roughly 5 percent decrease for most committees except for those that made especially compelling cases to be spared the full extent of such cuts.

But heading into the second legislative session, the committee called back chairmen and ranking members to, once again, defend their operating budgets in advance of an average 6.4 percent cut on top of what had already been shaved from panel coffers. At the end of 2011, the top-line number for all committees going into 2012 was brought down to $135 million.

Under the agreement that each committee’s budget would be split two-thirds to one-third between the majority and minority parties, respectively, ranking members also have testified before the House Administration Committee that their allocations, already shrunken, would make it difficult to meet certain obligations.

Pleas for mercy to Miller and ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., could be even stronger this year as sequester cuts will slash deeper into committee budgets that have, in many cases, already necessitated furloughs and layoffs.

Everyone should have already begun planning for the automatic spending cuts that were triggered on March 1, said Miller, who assumed the chairmanship of the committee at the start of the 113th Congress.

“We did a lot of outreach from our committee staff to the other committee staffs, since I’ve been chairman,” she told CQ Roll Call. “We’ve said, ‘You have to go talk to committee staff directors now.’”

She also hinted, as she has in the past, that she would not be a sympathetic audience.

“In my county, in Macomb County, the county employees have been taking furlough days for I think the last four years,” Miller said. “So, that’s my neighborhood.”

But even Republican chairmen in the past have expressed skepticism as to whether they would be able to sufficiently cope with such cuts to committee budgets that pay staff salaries, hire aides and counsels with special expertise in relevant issue areas and in general support panel operations, hearings and markups.

In 2011, Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said his committee had restricted hiring to 68 of its 71 staff slots. With 62 panel members, he said it would worsen what was already the lowest ratio of staff to members among House committees. “Frankly we are undermanned, being the largest committee and having the great responsibility of almost half of the spending,” McKeon said then.

Later that year, in anticipation of 2012 cuts, Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., cautioned there could be fewer field hearings essential for educating new members.

Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also expressed concerns about weakening their panels’ effectiveness.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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