Congress takes a turn at feeling the pinch of belt-tightening

March 16, 2013

Years after it became an unwelcomed American pastime, belt-tightening has come to Congress.

The $85 billion sequester, an across-the-board cut to federal spending that Congress conceived but never intended to actually take effect, has spawned an epidemic of unintended consequences.

And in small but telling ways, the sequester has pierced the bubble that has long protected the highest echelons of official Washington, often from itself.

It is notable, for example, that congressional salaries are exempt from the sequester cuts, but lawmakers are otherwise beginning to feel the pinch that’s all too familiar to many American families and businesses. Earlier this month, they learned that their office budgets were being slashed by 8.2 percent. With the average congressional office running on about $1.3 million annually, members have had to trim a serious chunk of change.

Magazine subscriptions have been canceled.

Constituents are getting e-mail instead of snail mail.

Invoices are getting a second look.

No one is worried that Congress will not survive, but for an institution that is not above exempting itself from the laws it makes or remedies it prescribes, this is something of a novelty.

“This is what’s been going on in the ‘real world’ for the last five years or more,” said Rep. John Shimkus. The Illinois Republican has dealt with the cuts by holding off on hiring a part-time worker and by making small changes such as canceling his offices’ newspaper and magazine subscriptions. “We’re just catching up.”

Welcome to the Great Recession, Congress — even if a few years late to the party.

For Rep. John Campbell, it meant checking his phone bill. The California Republican found out he’d been paying almost double what he should have for outdated services and managed to save about $200 a month.

Campbell, who ran a car dealership for 25 years, is no stranger to budget trimming. “The automotive business is cyclical,” he said. “You get into a recession, people stop buying. You learn to adjust. This isn’t a new rodeo for me.”

Like many families trading a Disney visit for a staycation, travel is out for Rep. Scott R. Tipton. It’s expensive to criss-cross his home district, some 54,00 square miles of mountainous terrain. So the Colorado Republican said he’s keeping a close eye on overnight stays and food costs for himself and his staff. He’s also turning down some far-flung speaking engagements.

Tipton, too, ran a business before coming to Congress, a Native American pottery wholesale and retail operation. Back then, he said, “I’d miss paychecks if I didn’t get the job done.”

Many other lawmakers are doing something small businesses have done for years as they waited out lean years: stalling on filling positions. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) is holding off on hiring for two open jobs in his office. One is a policy job, and the other, which Andrews fears will hurt the most, is a constituent-services caseworker.

The Congressional Management Foundation has been advising offices on how to handle the cuts; its guidance has included everything from moving district offices to save rent to switching from bottled water to tap filters.

It seems that no one has been fired or furloughed, though those options are still a possibility, and the House Administration Committee has released guidance on how to go about doing that.

The trims come on top of an 11 percent cut that House Republicans had already imposed on members’ office spending. The sequester is taking a 5 percent bite out of Senate office budgets, which are much higher than the House’s, with most hovering around $3 million.

Still, the rude jolt of budgetary reality won’t hit members where it would hurt them most. The annual salaries for members of Congress — $174,000 for most rank-and-filers — is exempt from sequester cuts.

And the nipping and tucking might not be enough to insulate Congress from the perception by voters that they’re dodging the pain that others — like federal workers getting furloughed, or constituents going without benefits — are feeling because of the sequester.

The salaries and benefits to Congress and the president have become a popular target of online outrage. Internet petitions, including on the liberal Moveon.org and several posted to the White House’s Web site, propose docking their pay during the sequester.

Still, the new ethos of fiscal austerity may cramp Congress’ style in other ways.

One perk that will disappear is overseas travel.

The congressional delegation dispatched to Rome this week to welcome the new pope will be flying commercial, per the policy that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) recently announced: no more trips for lawmakers on military jets. Under the new rules, House members may use money from their own budgets (or from those of their committees) to fly commercial airlines to their destinations. And with those budgets dwindling, that makes travel abroad much less likely.

That’s fine for recreational travel such as jaunts to the Paris Air Show, which have raised eyebrows in the past, members say. But some worry about curtailing visits to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

“There are certain things members have an obligation to see that they can’t get from the telephone or even congressional testimony,” said Claude Chafin, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee.

House members are directed to fly as far as they can commercially, then thumb a ride with a military plane.

And that’s not all the inconveniences. Starting this week, some doors around the Capitol complex were closed to save security manpower, meaning that staff has had to wait in longer lines — and lawmakers might find their preferred routes in and out of the buildings curtailed. Money for the Capitol police force has been cut. So have support services, from landscaping to maintenence.

On a recent morning, dozens of staffers formed a queue that stretched to the end of the block near the Hart Senate Office Building. One woman twirled a lanyard holding her staff identification — the golden ticket that usually guarantees one a relatively quick path into Capitol offices — while a man next to her frantically typed out an e-mail on his BlackBerry.

But once inside the buildings of the sprawling Capitol complex, one would be hard-pressed to find other evidence that money was tight.

Trash cans had been recently emptied. Floors appeared freshly waxed.

And in the Capitol’s ornate Speaker’s Lobby, just off the House floor, where lawmakers were jawing with reporters during a vote, a toasty fire blazed as temperatures fell outside.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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