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Hill Budget’s Fine Print: Less Than Meets the Skeptic’s Eye

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

That 19th-century aphorism “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure” comes to mind when poring over the mind-numbingly comprehensive midyear appropriations package — especially the 44 pages covering the political minefields and minutiae of spending on the legislative branch.

The nation’s legions of Congress-haters are scouring the fine print and concocting their own spreadsheets. They are expecting to uncover evidence that what’s labeled Division I of the omnibus is an exercise in deceitful and hypocritical self-dealing — and are confident they’ll be able to argue persuasively that those voting “yes” this week will be guilty of feathering their own nest at the expense of infinitely more pressing national priorities.

They are being urged on by dozens of Capitol Hill’s own current stewards. These most conservative Republican senators and House members are all too eager to demean the institution in which they work — especially when doing so serves as rationale for opposing a bill with a tough-to-comprehend bottom line cresting $1.1 trillion.

With a couple of narrow exceptions, the naysayers look to be quite disappointed.

The bill’s grand total for the running of Congress and all its affiliated agencies during the fiscal year ending this coming September is just under $4.3 billion. That’s a lot of money, to be sure. But, in almost every available context, it’s not as much as it had been.

The figure is 9 percent ($395 million) less than the record amount spent on the legislative branch four years ago. It’s impossible to point to any reason for the decline other than the Republican takeover of the House and the onset of a divided Congress the next year.

The fiscal 2014 top line is also less than half a point less ($19 million) than what Congress originally appropriated for itself in fiscal 2013 — the fairest apples-to-apples comparison. Other than the legislative branch, only the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development are due to experience a real year-over-year cut. All other departments and agencies will see at least nominal annualized increases.

The only way to describe the lawmakers as increasing the congressional budget is to compare the total in the omnibus to the comparable figure after the sequester took effect in March, mandating an across-the-board cut of 5 percent to all domestic programs. By that calculation, legislative branch spending will now be 4.7 percent more than if the post-sequester levels had been maintained.

But that figure squares almost exactly with the overall increase (4.6 percent) in discretionary spending permitted under the budget deal reached and ratified in December. In other words, Congress is raising its own budget by the same amount it raised the rest of the federal government’s.

It’s also the case that both the House and Senate — which, by custom, set the budgets for their own operations without input from the other side — constricted their own budgets a bit more to allow more money to be spent elsewhere.

By far the biggest winner would be the Capitol campus itself. Thanks to a 22 percent spike in the budget for the Architect of the Capitol, the bill would support a surge in restoration and maintenance projects that were deferred during the past several years of GOP belt-tightening-begins-at-home — including the $15 million scheduled start of the most prominent project of all, to shore up the 19th-century cast iron Dome.

The numbers that most staffers care about most, the budgets for their own offices, will also get clipped under the bill. The pot of money that pays for the personnel and expenses of senators’ personal offices will be trimmed by 1 percent from the pre-sequester amount, to $390 million. The comparable amount in the House is dipping 3 percent, to $554 million.

One bit of a budgetary reprieve that’s being quietly provided by the omnibus: That total for Members’ Representational Allowances will be $10 million above what the House Appropriations Committee proposed last summer — an average increase of $23,000 per office.

To be sure, there are a couple of lines in the legislative branch section that will make the budget hawks cringe. The attending physician’s office will still get $3.4 million to provide outpatient care to members and staff — a service they’ll get regardless of whether they now have to buy insurance on the health care exchanges. And a death benefit of a year’s salary, $174,000, will be paid to the family of the late GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida — continuing a practice that started a century ago, before life insurance was commonplace.

But there are also some policy riders that fiscal conservatives might like.

House members would be required to deposit at the end of each year any of their unspent budgets in a new deficit-reduction fund.

Overtime pay for the Capitol Police may not be more than 8 percent of the force’s $279 million payroll.

Language would allow moviemakers to once again film in Union Square, the dusty field just west of the West Front’s reflecting pool, which Congress reclaimed from the National Park Service two years ago — with the rental fees dedicated to making the acreage a greensward again.

And the House would take new steps toward joining the paperless economy. The routine delivery of stacks of printed bills and Congressional Records to every office was discontinued a few years ago. From now on, the routine distribution of handsomely bound copies of the U.S. Code to every office will be curtailed to only 50 sets of the volumes a year.

That’s sure to save a few thousand bucks, while serving as as a nod to belt-tightening for the modern age — the same way ending the delivery of ice-filled buckets to every office was discontinued two decades ago.

But the loss of those leather-bound books sure will be a crushing blow to aides hoping to decorate the boss’s office on the cheap.

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