For House, budget cuts hit close to home

Symbolic gesture trims mass mailings, interns

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The House of Representatives that returns Tuesday is 10 percent leaner than a year prior — the result of a pair of mandates requiring largely symbolic cuts to the way it goes about its business enacted since John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, assumed the speaker’s gavel in January.

The cuts have resulted in raises for chiefs of staff, while the payroll for low-level aides was slashed. The largest savings, in mass mailings to constituents, may have come not from renewed financial prudence so much as technology.

Mr. Boehner also passed on some easy plans to cut spending on luxuries that were brought to his attention, such as nearly $1 million a year on bottled water.

With jobs a primary concern to Americans, the professionals tasked with the issue on the House Education and the Workforce Committee saw their spending shrink to $1.5 million last quarter from $1.9 million a year ago, while the spending for its security force rose by a greater amount.

Accountability could suffer. The spending for the House ethics committee, which investigates wrongdoing by members, went down more than 30 percent, three times that of most other offices.

With less federal money doled out, the House Appropriations Committee shed nearly 50 staffers, a reduction of $2 million. In many ways, that makes sense, observers say. But with increased competition for the smaller pot of money, they wonder whether offices are equipped to properly oversee programs whose budgets are thousands of times higher than those of congressional offices.

Sharing the pain

“The thinking is, if we’re going to ask other federal agencies to trim, we’ve got to feel it, too,” said Dino diSanto, chief of staff to Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio Republican, who ran one of the leanest House offices last quarter and flies home out of Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport instead of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport because airfares are cheaper.

The symbolic cuts have had an impact on the young workers who carry out the day-to-day business of legislating, but they have not been felt equally.

House salaries amounted to $130 million last quarter, more than $7 million below the period a year prior. About $140,000 came from a reduction in the amount spent on interns, which fell to a little more than $500,000. Pay to chiefs of staff rose about $700,000, to $14 million.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, Missouri Democrat, accomplished a $46,000 payroll savings for the quarter by pairing $2,000 reductions to checks written to most low-level staff with a $5,000 raise at the chief of staff level, payroll records indicate.

Mr. Clay’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Maryland Democrat, cut payroll 13 percent compared with a year prior. “Some of that is, we’ve brought on younger staffers, and we pay commensurate with experience,” said spokesman Ben Gerdes. The office was among those that stopped paying interns.

“There’s an irony to the intern situation,” said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation. “Being an intern is the entree to working on Capitol Hill, and as you shift to more and more unpaid interns, it’s also a socioeconomic shift. You either have to immediately get a second job, which is difficult, or you have to come from a wealthy background so your family can foot the bill. You’re limiting the pool of people who can have different perspectives.”

Little luxuries

Meanwhile, luxuries that could be cut with little risk of unintended consequences were left alone.

Rules prohibit taxpayer money from being spent on bottled water at most federal buildings, but not at the Capitol. House offices have long spent nearly $1 million a year on bottled water. Tap water in the Capitol is checked regularly and is safe to drink, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

“I read with great interest of your decision to cut the budget for House offices,” George S. Hawkins, general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, wrote to Mr. Boehner in January. “If fiscal responsibility is your aim, I should point out that our water costs about a penny a gallon. Bottled water costs hundreds of times more.”

The water authority offered free refillable bottles to replace jugs delivered by trucks and the testing of pipes to alleviate any concerns about water quality in the historic buildings. Mr. Boehner’s office never responded.

“It would have been an easy step to take,” said Alan Heymann, a spokesman for the D.C. water authority.

Historic changes

The page program, which paid high school students to ferry documents for members and gave some lawmakers their first taste of politics, will not return with the House on Tuesday for the first time.

This year also appeared to mark a death knell for another tradition dating to the earliest days of the republic. The biggest savings came from taxpayer-funded mailings to constituents, known as franking. The amount spent on printing and sending mailings declined dramatically, by $10 million in the second quarter compared with a year prior.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, slimmed his office budget 40 percent by cutting back on mailings. The hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on mailings in a few months last year was more than the entire payroll for his Washington and district staffs.

Mr. Buchanan “understands the need to rein in spending and restore fiscal sanity to Washington,” his office said in a statement.

Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, spent $130,000 on mailers in the second quarter of 2010, and nearly nothing last quarter.

Franked mail is cherished by members because it gives a boost to incumbents by increasing name recognition without requiring campaign funds. Nearly all congressional mail is sent by House members, who have to defend their seats every two years, rather than senators, who face election once every six years.

But in the era of the tea party, when minutiae is scrutinized for signs of excess, franked mail, which must include a notice that it is “Prepared, Published, and Mailed at Taxpayer Expense,” risked becoming a liability more than an asset.

When Rep. Frank C. Guinta, New Hampshire Republican, held a town-hall meeting recently to seek input on the largest issues of the day, the forum was interrupted by an angry man who instead wanted to talk about junk mail.

“Let’s go back to the costs on the glossy!” the man yelled, referring to a mailing that used more expensive shiny paper, The Washington Post reported.

In fiscal 2006, congressional mail amounted to nearly 1 percent of the $3.79 billion budget for the entire legislative branch, according to the Congressional Research Service. The mailings have been on the wane for more than a decade; that amount was less than a third of the $113 million they cost in 1988.

“With the advent of email and Facebook and your website, there are other ways to get that information out,” said Mr. diSanto. “One of the reasons we’ve been able to run lean is we don’t do any mailings.”

In an institution laden with history, items that are anachronistic and inefficient represent a ripe crop of low-hanging fruit. In July, House members agreed not to distribute the voluminous Congressional Record and copies of legislation in paper form. But Congress still spends much on old-fashioned and cumbersome trappings.

“There are all kinds of documents the House clerk prints instead of just putting online. You can go there and photocopy them for 10 cents a page, but then they have to pay to have a staff person there and a room,” said Mr. Schuman. “Offices can get mail delivered three or four times a day. Does that really make sense?”

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