Congress finds another place to boost spending: on itself

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Congress wants to boost spending on itself by nearly 11 percent this year, an increase that's part of a massive spending bill that has smaller increases for most agencies that deal with public health, education, energy, and other domestic needs.

The congressional budget, which the Senate is considering this week as part of a $410 billion fiscal 2009 spending bill, is higher than the 8 percent overall boost for most domestic programs.

As a result, Congress now appears well on track to approve spending $4.4 billion on itself, up from $3.97 billion last year.

The big increase for Congress has a number of sources: The new Capitol Visitor Center, improvements to the Capitol's aging infrastructure, and more money for agencies that oversee federal operations.

Also included is $19 million to renovate seven committee rooms in the House of Representatives, funding for staff cost-of-living pay increases and tens of thousands of dollars for special expense accounts for congressional leaders.

Not included in this budget are the salaries of members; those are part of a separate account. Members got a 2.8 percent pay increase in January, and most now make $174,000 a year. Leaders make slightly more. Members' pay will be frozen in 2010.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Legislative Appropriations subcommittee, said that much of the increase would make up for deferred maintenance and other higher costs, such as energy, rent and travel.

The bill's backers also note that though the legislative branch gets a bigger increase than most agencies, departments that handle health, education, transportation and other domestic programs got sizeable help from last month's economic stimulus bill, while Congress got very little.

Still, critics see the congressional spending as excessive at a time when lawmakers are preaching austerity. Asked why the leadership's expense accounts were not cut, if only as a symbol, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said "it could have been done. It wasn't done." Landrieu is the chairwoman of the Senate's Legislative Appropriations panel.

Under the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky each would get $40,000 for expenses through Sept. 30. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would get $25,000. Others in lower leadership posts get somewhat less.

The accounts, which didn't increase from last year, can "help defray costs that are associated with the leadership position," said Regan Lachapelle, Reid's spokeswoman. Uses include meals, receptions and gifts to heads of state, expenses that someone not in the leadership wouldn't incur. The most recent Secretary of the Senate expense report lists only "miscellaneous expenses" and an equipment purchase for the Reid account.

Overall, the bill covers spending for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Funding for most domestic programs will run out Friday unless Congress acts, and Republican-led efforts this week to pare spending have proven futile.

The Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office, which have new responsibilities to oversee the economic recovery plan, as well as more requests to analyze health care and climate change policies, would get one of the biggest increases. CBO's budget would go up 18 percent while GAO would get 6 percent more than last year.

"It's an increase well spent," Landrieu said.

Accounting for another big portion of the increase is the budget for fire and safely improvements at the Capitol and surrounding buildings.

"It would be irresponsible not to tackle these problems now," Landrieu said. "We will just be kicking them down the road, where they will be more expensive and more difficult to repair."

Other factors driving up spending are the House and Senate operating budgets, which would rise about 8.5 percent. A 4.78 percent cost of living increase was provided for Senate staff, though individual pay increases could vary. House staff pay is also up to individual members; Wasserman Schultz's office wouldn't estimate a range for increases.

Another key reason for the legislative budget increase is the visitor center, which would get $31.4 million to complete the $621 million project, which has cost nearly three times the amount that was estimated when ground was broken in 2000.

Eva Malecki, a communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol, said the funds were the "final installment" for the project's construction.

"The delay is due in large part to the added scope" of the project as well as changes in the fire alarm system. Without the additional funds, said a statement from the architect's office, it would be unable to "close out the . . . contracts and settle delay claims."

This year's visitor center budget also includes $9.1 million for operating expenses. Among the requests: Some $800,000 for a second shift for gift shop workers, as well as event workers and exhibit interpreters. Also included is $240,000 to produce informational brochures to be placed at tourist sites, and another $240,000 for graphic design services for guidebooks and brochures.

ON THE WEB:

History of Congressional pay raises

House roll call vote on budget

Text of spending bill

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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