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House Democrats telegraph policy priorities in Capitol Hill funding

Comparison of previous GOP, current Dem spending choices show differences

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attends a news conference with House Democrats on March 12 to introduce the “Dream and Promise Act.” The new majority’s Legislative Branch Appropriations bill would allow Dreamers to get jobs on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attends a news conference with House Democrats on March 12 to introduce the “Dream and Promise Act.” The new majority’s Legislative Branch Appropriations bill would allow Dreamers to get jobs on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Empowered by their control of the House, Democrats are telegraphing their policy priorities in how they plan to spend taxpayer dollars on Capitol Hill, including exploring student debt relief options and employing Dreamers in Congress.

The fiscal 2020 House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill is signaling what types of issues Democrats want to be talking about and working on, both for their constituents back home and right here on Capitol Hill.

Democrats are highlighting issues of paid family leave, equal pay, climate change and depictions of Native Americans throughout the Capitol.

Looking back to early 2011, or the fiscal 2012 spending process — Republicans’ first chance to make spending decisions after taking control of the House after four years in the minority — there are major divides in priorities.

Democrats this year are pushing increased funding for legislative branch agencies. As the country emerged from the Great Recession, Republican leaders in fiscal 2012 emphasized that nearly every corner of the government was on the chopping block, and made deep multimillion dollar cuts to nearly every legislative branch support agency. 

For example, Democratic appropriators this year are urging the Capitol Visitor Center to hire Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians as tour guides to more “accurately and respectfully” convey the history of Native Americans. In fiscal 2012, the GOP-led panel “observed that there seems to be a rather large contingent of tour guides assigned to the CVC,” and requested a study of staffing levels for potential reductions.

Flashback: Pelosi, Lewis and House Democrats unveil legislative agenda for 116th

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Greening of the Capitol

House appropriators this year are renewing a “greening of the Capitol” effort. The committee is asking the Architect of the Capitol to expand the use of smart power strips and more EPA-approved water-conserving toilets in bathrooms around the Capitol.

House appropriators commended the Architect of the Capitol on 30 tons of electronic equipment recycled in 2018 and encouraged the agency to explore ways to generate revenue from its e-waste.

That is in contrast to the fiscal 2012 measure, in which House Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment that would have barred funds for polystyrene dishware in House cafeterias. When Republicans took control of the House, they replaced biodegradable dishware with the Styrofoam-like material that they said cost less.

Food outlets on the House side run by Sodexo have in recent years moved to wooden stir sticks for coffee, instead of plastic ones, and compostable “to go” containers. Washington, D.C., had already banned Styrofoam due to its environmental impacts and potential health risks.

The Republican majority also rejected an amendment that would have banned compact fluorescent light bulbs in member offices in the fiscal 2012 bill.

Staffer pay

Appropriators and lawmakers on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress have raised concerns about staffer pay levels, turnover and “brain drain” from Capitol Hill to K Street.

A major determining factor of staffer pay in the House is the funding level of the Members’ Representational Allowance, which is the office account from which lawmakers pay staff salaries, official travel expenses and constituent mail.

Democrats on the full House Appropriations panel voted along party lines to adopt an amendment from Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan of Ohio that would boost MRA funding by $41 million. The proposal would increase the MRA accounts by 4 percent, or an average of $55,000 per member.

In 2012, cutting spending — and staffer pay levels through the the use of furloughs even — was the primary objective as the recession was still on people’s minds. 

“The committee directs that furloughs be an option for cost reduction, which should be no greater than one day per month to lessen the impact on the employees, the support to the Congress, and the services provided to the nation,” reads the fiscal 2012 committee report.

The fiscal 2012 measure also instructed Legislative Branch agencies to report and justify all circumstances where the sum of annual compensation and any “performance based merit increases” would cause any employee to exceed compensation of a member of Congress’ salary, $174,000 per year.

Security and Capitol Police

Some concerns have remained front of mind across party lines and over close to a decade, including safety of lawmakers as threats against them rise.

In January 2011, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Arizona. That sparked increased concerns about lawmakers and their staff’s safety at events away from the tight security on Capitol Hill.

While appropriators slashed other Capitol support agencies for fiscal 2012, the Capitol Police allocation saw an increase of $12.5 million, to $340 million. Part of the increase was attributed to an unexpected budget shortfall discovered in 2011 and part was due to “an increase in agents as a result of the tragic shooting in Tucson,” the House Appropriations Committee said at the time.

But cuts were still made to security funding. The House Sergeant-at-Arms saw a 10 percent cut in fiscal 2012, and a 6.4 percent cut to MRAs in fiscal 2012 stoked security fears and an outcry from Democrats. The reduction could put members in a situation where they have to choose to fire one employee in order to afford to protect the rest, some Democrats argued.

This year, lawmakers are still thinking about the June 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice and explosive devices mailed to lawmakers in 2018.

The fiscal 2020 proposal for Capitol Police includes a $7 million boost over enacted levels, funding the department at $463 million. The increase will help cover the cost of operations at the national party conventions next year as well as meet current operational needs, according to appropriators.

After the baseball practice shooting, lawmakers expanded what security expenditures members could use their office funds on. Bulletproof vests and other security equipment were approved as purchases with Members’ Representational Allowance funds.

Telegraphing Democratic priorities

Without an overhaul of immigration policy or even a deal focused on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients on the horizon, House Democrats are trying to open the door for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children, to get jobs 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. The measure includes language permitting Legislative Branch agencies to employ Dreamers 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.

The push is playing out in Congress, and is also being championed by lawmakers who are on the presidential campaign trail.

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a bill in April that would amend current law to include DACA beneficiaries as an additional category of people eligible for paid employment in Congress.

“Government works best when it reflects the people it represents,” she said in a statement. “Our nation’s Dreamers are some of our best and brightest, and it’s time they had the opportunity to get a job or paid internship on Capitol Hill.”

Harris’ legislation isn’t likely to get traction in the GOP-led Senate. But Ryan — a fellow presidential contender — successfully shepherded a bill containing the DACA employment provision through committee. It awaits floor consideration.

House appropriators are making a big push to study programs they’d like to see enacted on Capitol Hill, arming themselves with data to later push the actual policies forward. Student loan repayment is one example of a Democratic priority that’s getting attention on the national stage that they’re looking to expand for their own staff.

The fiscal 2020 proposal includes language requesting a study from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer on the costs and impacts associated with increasing the House Student Loan Repayment Program’s maximum lifetime benefit from $60,000 to $80,000.

That program isn’t a forgiveness program and doesn’t touch a vast amount of student debt held by Hill staff. Each House office decides whether to offer loan payments to an employee, as well as the amount of the payments. In many offices, seniority rules, so a chief of staff’s law school loans could be prioritized over a staff assistant’s undergraduate loans.

This year’s bill also requests a CAO report on implementing a tuition assistance program for House staff and what resources would be needed to execute that kind of program.

“The committee bill does not include funding for tuition reimbursement or the child care subsidy benefit because of a lack of authorization,” reads the House Legislative Branch appropriations committee report for fiscal 2012.

There is also a study on implementing a paid family leave program for House staff.

“There is interest among members of Congress to investigate the feasibility of implementing a standard House-wide paid family leave policy,” reads the committee report to accompany the fiscal 2020 House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The measure directs the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to report on the feasibility and cost of establishing and maintaining a House-wide paid family and medical leave policy and program. Lawmakers want the CAO to study options for providing staffers 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth and care of a newborn child, adoption or fostering a child or caring for an immediate family member with a serious health condition.

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