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House spending panel advances measure boosting congressional funding

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, offered amendments to boost Members Representational Allowances. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, offered amendments to boost Members Representational Allowances. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Appropriations Committee advanced a $3.97 billion fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch spending measure Thursday, following tension over total funding levels and the absence of a final budget agreement.

The panel voted 28-22 to report the draft bill to the floor, which would provide $164 million more than enacted fiscal 2019 levels.

Lawmakers sparred over how to allocate $29 million in additional funds allowed under the Legislative Branch subcommittee’s allocation, known as a 302(b).

Subcommittee chairman Tim Ryan of Ohio offered an amendment that would use the additional funding to boost Members’ Representational Allowance funding levels by $41 million. Some of the funds would be used to match appropriations with authorized spending levels. With Ryan’s amendment, the office accounts that members use to pay for staff salaries, official travel and constituent mail would see a 4 percent increase, or an average of $55,000 per member.

The amendment would also provide additional funding to the Architect of the Capitol’s construction and operations fund for the agency’s most pressing construction expenditures.

The full committee adopted Ryan’s amendment by voice vote. But not before voting along party lines on a proposal by subcommittee ranking member Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., that would have put all additional funding provided under the updated budget allocation into a spending reduction account.

“The challenge that I have is that there is no consensus budget agreement,” said Herrera Beutler. She said that while she knows it is possible to “limp along” without a budget agreement, she warned that the committee’s increased budget authority could trigger sequestration going forward.

“This is an opportunity for us to set an example,” she said.

The panel rejected Herrera Beutler’s changes on a 23-28 vote.

Appropriators also adopted a manager’s amendment from Ryan, by voice vote. The proposal, which Democrats and Republicans agreed on before Thursday’s markup, would increase fiscal 2020 funding for the Library of Congress’ veterans history project by $1 million and make small technical changes to the overall bill.

The bill advanced by the panel includes language that would open the door for recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program to work legally on Capitol Hill.

California Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard claimed responsibility for the DACA language, touting her district as home to the largest number of Dreamers in the country.

“Our democracy will surely be enriched by their presence on Capitol Hill,” she told the committee.

Current law bars most non-U.S. citizens from working for the federal government. Even congressional staffers with legal residency, including refugees, must sign an affidavit swearing they are taking steps toward full citizenship.

The measure includes language permitting Legislative Branch agencies to employ so-called Dreamers — residents brought to the U.S. illegally as children — who already hold employment authorization under DACA. The bill would override existing prohibitions on the use of government funds to employ people who are not U.S. citizens.

Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the full Appropriations panel, appeared to voice concern about the DACA provision without naming it specifically.

“Legislative Branch appropriations bills typically avoid controversy and have bipartisan support. Unfortunately this bill contains policies that divide us,” Granger said.

Last year’s Legislative Branch measure launched an account specifically for compensating House interns on Capitol Hill, many of whom worked unpaid. First codified in fiscal 2019, the intern pay account would see an increase under the proposal.

The bill would provide $11 million in funding for intern pay, increasing the allowance for each member office from $20,000 to $25,000. The measure also extends the internship funding to leadership offices, with $200,000 allocated for compensation of interns who serve in House leadership offices of the majority, and $165,000 for minority leadership offices.

The Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA, provided Congress with analysis of technology issues from 1972 to 1995. The agency’s mission was to ensure lawmakers had the information they needed on new or expanding technologies and objective information assessing impacts, policy proposals and scientific expertise “to match that of the executive branch.” The bill advanced Thursday includes $6 million in initial funding to restore the office.

Overall, the Legislative Branch subcommittee received a $5.01 billion allocation for the coming fiscal year, but that figure includes Senate-specific items which will be addressed later by appropriators in that chamber.

The page for the draft fiscal 2020 House Legislative Branch appropriations bill is here.

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