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House Administration Panel Looks Ahead to Tough Choices on Budgets

After two days of hearing committee leaders argue on behalf of their budget requests, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., is acknowledging that she has some difficult choices to make.

There is some room to negotiate with committee budgets as the panel prepares to make allocations in the weeks ahead, but not much. Miller and ranking member Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., this year have to cut 20 panel accounts by a number yet to be determined.

In consultation with House leadership, Miller said, her committee will in the coming weeks decide whether each panel should take an average 11 percent cut from its 2012 allocation or a 5 percent increase from what it actually spent in 2012.

But as in years’ past, the House Administration Committee has the discretion to vary that allocation from panel to panel, working within the topline number to boost some committee budgets — at the expense of decreasing others.

A fiscal conservative from a district hit hard by the recession, Miller embraces somewhat of a “take-no-prisoners” approach to the budgeting process. Last week, though, as her panel wrapped up two days of hearings, she said she was “sympathetic” to the committee testimonies.

She also hinted that there were a few compelling arguments, such as the Judiciary Committee, with its packed legislative portfolio this session, and the Rules Committee, with its unique printing needs.

“And some of them have been extremely fiscally conservative,” she said. “You don’t want to punish them for doing something right.”

House committee chairmen and ranking members knew that the sequester wouldn’t save their committee coffers from substantial cuts, but it didn’t stop many of them from vehemently arguing that they should be spared the biggest brunt.

Last week, the top Republican and Democrat from the chamber’s other committees all expressed the same sentiment: It has become increasingly difficult to get by on limited resources after most committees endured, in the 112th Congress, a reduction of 11.4 percent from their previous funding levels.

Even Republicans, who pledged to “lead by example” in practicing fiscal austerity when they took control of the House in 2011, insisted that further cuts necessitated by the sequester would be detrimental to their committee’s work.

“The committee was able to absorb, in the 112th Congress, a  . . .  cut that would be very, very difficult for us moving forward,” Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said.

Every chairman and ranking member said he or she is already unable to fully staff their sides of the committee aisle under current budget constraints. Many added that they have had to consolidate subcommittees, cut back on field hearings and site visits and delay technology upgrades and repairs.

Tighter purse strings also come as many committees are beginning to simultaneously tackle legislation of unprecedented scale and scope.

The Judiciary Committee, for instance, will consider overhauls to the country’s gun and immigration laws. Meanwhile, the Science , Space and Technology Committee needs to reauthorize the NASA, and the Ways and Means Committee could revamp the tax code for the first time since 1986.

Not only did each committee’s chairman and ranking member have a similar narrative, but they also each had a strong case for how their panel’s workload entitled them to the largest budget feasible.

“As you determine how to allocate resources among the committees, I would argue that the Dodd-Frank bill is equal to the health care law,” Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said of the sweeping 2010 financial regulatory overhaul measure still being implemented. “While the Affordable Care Act expands across three committees of jurisdiction, the Dodd-Frank Act is almost exclusively within jurisdiction of the Financial Services Committee.”

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., described his panel as “unique.”

“We look for waste, fraud and abuse, and at a time when you are trying to find win-wins, we can help provide them,” Issa said. “We’re not a spending committee; we’re a savings committee.”

If the House Administration Committee does decide to boost some committee budgets at the expense of others, that would be fine with some of the chairmen who testified last week.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said he hoped to have his committee’s budget cut by 11 percent from the 2012 allocation. He and his Democratic counterpart, California Rep. George Miller, were able to spend just 82 percent of their 2012 allocation, and they shouldn’t be penalized for being “good stewards” of taxpayer dollars, Kline explained.

“If [another committee] spent 98 or 99 percent of its budget last year, while we were being good stewards of the money, it’s not fair for us to take bigger cuts,” Kline told CQ Roll Call after his testimony.

The cuts that lie ahead also loom large for the ranking members, who typically receive one-third of their committee’s overall budget for Democrat-specific staff salaries and operating expenses. While it’s always a challenge to do more with less, the minority party is at even more of a disadvantage under the sequester.

“I’ve always said sequestration is no way to run a country,” Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said in a brief interview. “And it’s no way to run the Congress, either.”

In addition to allocating panel budgets, the House Administration Committee is also responsible for calculating the Members’ Representational Allowance, which under sequestration has been reduced by 8.2 percent.

But members can’t compete over MRAs: Everybody will have their office expense accounts cut by the same percentage, and each baseline is calculated according to a specific formula that changes depending on certain characteristics of each lawmaker’s district.

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