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Panel Tackles Legislative Branch Budget

Almost four months into life on Capitol Hill in the era of the sequester, House members have 20 percent fewer dollars to run their offices. The Office of the House Chief Administrative Officer, lawmakers’ de facto HR department, is offering buyouts. And Capitol Police officers are being pulled from posts around the Capitol complex to cut back on overtime pay, meaning longer lines to enter buildings are increasingly becoming business as usual.

The sequester’s automatic spending cuts agreed to back in 2011 and triggered this year are already being felt across the Capitol campus. But when a House subcommittee meets Tuesday to mark up the House Legislative Branch appropriations bill for fiscal 2014, it will be the first time Congress considers legislation to fund its own operations affected by the sequester.

It’s also likely to reignite a rhetorical joust between Republicans and Democrats, who disagree about how to shape legislative branch spending bills and spar over which party caused the sequester in the first place.

The proposed $3.2 billion Legislative Branch bill unveiled Monday would shave $113 million from the total fiscal 2013 budget for the coming year. For House-specific expenses, it would put forward $1.2 billion, or $54 million less than in fiscal 2013 under the sequester.

While the chamber’s GOP majority has prided itself since 2011 on using legislative branch measures as opportunities to lead by example to cut spending, this iteration could show just what it means to cut this deep into the budget that keeps Capitol Hill afloat.

Democrats are certain to argue that Legislative Branch spending levels are reaching a dangerous precipice, all in the name of political showmanship.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and ranking member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, is expected in her opening remarks at Tuesday’s markup to blast the Republican proposal: “At some point there is no ‘doing more with less’ — there is only less [and] we have reached that point,” according to her office.

Specifically, Democrats are likely to seize, as they already have, on the 8.2 percent cut to the expense accounts that House members use to run their offices. The reduction was already put in place months ago with the sequester’s initial trigger, but the House’s version of the fiscal 2014 Legislative Branch appropriations bill would codify it.

With the 8.2 percent cut added on to an 11.4 percent reduction endured since 2011, House members now have about 20 percent fewer funds to travel to their districts, oversee constituent casework, and recruit and retain staff.

The scope of the cut is unprecedented by any standard, regardless of party affiliation.

Meanwhile, the proposed spending bill would fund the Library of Congress at $557 million, a cut of $30.7 million from the fiscal 2013 allocation. It comes as the agency has found itself in a massive storage crisis where overflow books are being piled onto the floors.

And the Government Accountability Office, functioning at its lowest staffing levels since the 1930s while continuing to receive a high rate of congressional requests for reports on taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse, would receive $486 million in the House’s Legislative Branch draft bill, or a $20 million cut from fiscal 2013.

But along with these cuts come some concessions from House Republican appropriators.

“The Capitol is not only a symbol of American government, but a working, active, and highly visited complex that requires significant upkeep to keep it safe, operating efficiently, and accessible to the public,” Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement Monday.

To this end, the bill would fund the Architect of the Capitol with $508 million, a $15.6 million increase above the fiscal 2013 allocation. The line item would include $16 billion to let the AOC proceed with the next stages of restoring the Capitol Dome, which is starting to crumble after more than a century of weather damage.

It’s a striking acknowledgement from lawmakers that the Capitol complex’s aging infrastructure will not survive later on in the absence of some investments to ensure its upkeep.

And the Capitol Police would receive $329 million in the House bill, a decrease of $9.4 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level but simultaneously an $8.3 million increase above the funding levels currently being sustained because of the sequester. The additional funds would, according to the bill summary, “prevent any furloughs that could cause potentially dangerous lapses in the security of the buildings and those who work in and visit the Complex.”

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