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Hill’s Spending on Itself Set on Cautious Course

The Capitol Dome's restoration is funded in the legislative branch appropriations bill dealing with congressional spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Capitol Dome's restoration is funded in the legislative branch appropriations bill dealing with congressional spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The end of the fiscal year is still a dozen weeks in the future, but already a shutdown showdown looks inevitable. For circumstantial evidence, look no further than the floor schedules for this month. None of the 12 annual spending bills will get a shot at passing the Senate, while the House will give up on the appropriations calendar with four measures in limbo.  

But those who work on Capitol Hill can breathe much more easily than many. They, at least, already have a strong measure of certainty about the coming year. Bills setting the budgets for running Congress and its satellite agencies in the coming year have already been endorsed, in remarkably similar form, by the entire House and the Senate Appropriations Committee.  

No matter what happens in the triangular standoff over the sequester spending levels — among President Barack Obama, GOP leadership and the diehard fiscal hawks — the line items aren’t going to shift noticeably for better or worse. The special projects that have been rewarded aren’t going to change. The pet peeves surfaced in the fine print aren’t going to disappear.  

And, even when the inevitable relaxation of domestic spending curbs happens this fall, Congress is not going to be so politically foolish as to spend more money on itself. The Republican “cardinals” newly installed to oversee the bill, freshman Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and fifth-year Rep. Tom Graves of rural northwest Georgia, already have written bills designed to withstand the scrupulous public scrutiny that always surrounds legislative branch appropriations.  

Evidence their handiwork has been successfully designed to withstand talk-radio blather about “feathering their own nest at the expense of the rest” can be found in these vote totals: The House measure passed 357-67 in May; Senate appropriators approved their companion bill, 27-3, in June.  

The bottom line is the simplest reason why. The discretionary spending grand total is right at $4.3 billion, within a genuine rounding error from this year as well as the year before  — and 9 percent less than the budget assembled in 2010, the last time the Democrats ran the process.  

Members are skipping a pay raise for a seventh consecutive year, well-known self denial that’s a de facto requirement for electoral comfort . But less publicized is the fact their office budgets also will be frozen, with each House member again getting in the neighborhood of $1.3 million for payroll and expenses and senators’ allocations still varying between $3 million for Delaware’s pair (because they have short trips to be with their small constituency) and $4.7 million for the Californians.  

Holding the line on routine overhead was necessary to free up money for some big-ticket items. With the $60 million Dome restoration now paid for, the biggest capital expense is $72 million for the first full year of the 108-year-old Cannon House Office Building modernization , which will take a decade and cost almost $800 million. The west façade of the companion Russell Senate Office Building is due for a more modest $10 million facelift. Another $21 million is earmarked for rehabbing several garages in the complex.  

There also are one-time expenses that cannot be postponed. Platforms and bleachers for the 2017 presidential inaugural must be built in the coming year ($5 million) and the special congressional committee that puts on the ceremony will have bills to pay ($1.3 million.)  

Partly as a result, the artisans restoring the historic frescoed passages and reception rooms surrounding the Senate chamber will have to do without $8 million they sought to keep current in their work.  

The biggest winner once again will be the Capitol Police. Its budget has more than quadrupled in the past 15 years, fueled by the fundamentally new emphasis on congressional security at the expense of Hill openness since the Sept. 11 attacks.  

And, notwithstanding a wave of internal discord and bad publicity, the 1,800-member force can count on another increase of at least 5 percent in the coming year, to just under $370 million. No new initiatives are proposed, but lawmakers told the USCP to spend an extra $20 million redoubling efforts to prevent and combat threats. (Another $2 million is for congressional security at next summer’s political conventions.)  

To be sure, the appropriators had a couple of bones to pick with the police — but their reports accompanying the House and Senate bills made no mention of firearms left in Capitol mens’ rooms , slow responses to protesters at hearings or other incidents that have generated headlines.  

Instead, lawmakers suspect overtime may be getting abused and have capped time-and-a-half payments at 11 percent of total payroll. They also have ordered Chief Kim C. Dine to come up with rules restricting the use of smartphones and other “distracting” electronics by cops on duty.  

The member micromanaging hardly ends there. Both the House and Senate bills order the installation of electric car battery charging stations in the Library of Congress parking lot. The people who run the Botanic Garden are pressed to do more to educate tourists about American plant life. The Architect of the Capitol is prohibited from painting likenesses of buildings on the tarpaulins used during their renovations — apparently displeased with the visual trickery that fooled so many outside the Supreme Court when such a scrim was deployed during its recent overhaul.  

And House appropriators, at least, are worried about tourists getting ripped off. Noting the prices at the Capitol Visitor Center cafeteria are much higher than in the House eateries, they’ve ordered congressional administrators to do what it takes for their staff and their constituents to charge the same thing for the same food.

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