On the supercommittee agenda: Cutting Congress’s budget

Reporter October 24, 2011

For all the attention being devoted to the congressional “supercommittee,” the panel’s deficit-cutting is actually designed to be a team effort.

Under the law that created the new panel, every standing House and Senate committee was tasked with passing along recommendations for what spending to cut within their own jurisdictions. That includes the panel that helps run half of the Capitol — the House Administration Committee. And not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats don’t see eye to eye on what Congress should slash from its own budget.

In mid-October, House Administration Republicans wrote to the supercommittee urging that it cut funding not for Congress itself but for an entity under its purview — the Election Assistance Commission.

The EAC was established by the 2002 Help America Vote Act as an independent, bipartisan commission tasked with establishing election reform guidelines and handing out federal money to states to help them meet those rules and buy new voting machines. Those tasks have largely been completed, House Administration Republicans say, and the EAC spends far too much on staff and overhead to complete the work it has left.

“The Election Assistance Commission has fulfilled its function and is now a perfect example of unnecessary and wasteful spending,” they wrote to the supercommittee.

The House Administration Committee approved a bill this year to end the EAC, but it failed on the House floor in June.

Committee Democrats strongly disagree with the majority’s recommendation, arguing that closing the EAC would shift its responsibilities — including certifying voting machines — to what they call “the increasingly deadlocked and incapacitated” Federal Election Commission.

Instead, Democrats offered four cost-cutting suggestions of their own to the supercommittee: saving energy in Hill buildings through steps such as “adjusting corridor lighting levels and ambient temperatures overnight”; cutting computing costs by using new technology to manage constituent communications; raising the fees that applicants pay to the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office; and reducing printing at executive branch agencies that could be done by the Government Printing Office.

Salley Wood, the spokeswoman for House Administration Republicans, said the majority is already trying to reduce energy use and promote better use of technology. As for the Printing Office proposal, she asked: “Why doesn’t the administration follow Congress’s lead and reduce printing?”

Web kudos for the Hill

The next round of Grammys and Oscars won’t be handed out until February, but for tech-savvy Capitol Hill denizens, this is the big week — the Gold Mouse Awards have been announced.

Every two years, the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation hands out letter grades to the Web sites of House and Senate committees and lawmakers’ offices, rating the sites based on their usability, transparency and a host of other factors. This year, the CMF gave a Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze Mouse award to 98 of the 618 sites it reviewed.

The best Senate member site, the group said, belonged to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) took the prize for best House member site. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) got the nod for best leadership site, and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce was judged to have the top panel site.

On the bright side, the CMF found that “the overall quality of congressional websites has improved between 2009 and 2011.” While the most commonly issued grade in the group’s report two years ago was an F, it’s now a B. As it has documented in other reports, the CMF also found that “the use of social media tools by congressional offices has risen exponentially.”

Less charitably, the CMF said that a “significant number of Member websites lack basic educational and transparency features and content valuable to their constituents.” When people want to know where their lawmakers stand on a particular issue, they usually go first to the members’ Web sites. But, the CMF found, “a significant number of Member websites do not offer basic information about their activities, the work of the Congress, or even the legislative process.”

Among the large group of freshmen elected in 2010, the House members did much better than their Senate counterparts. While 61 percent of House freshmen earned an A or a B for their sites, no Senate freshmen got an A, and nearly half of the new senators received a D or an F.

Showing mercy, the CMF’s report does not mention by name the lawmakers who scored the lowest grades. So no awards for the worst sites — the Rusty Mouse? the Cubic Zirconia Mouse? — will be handed out. Not yet, anyway.

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