Coburn’s cuts: Congress should ‘lead by example’


U.S.Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
July 20, 2011

Editor’s note: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Monday released a study that he said would achieve $9 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade. We look at parts of the proposal.

“While Americans are forced to do more with less, Congress is doing less with more.”

Those are the words of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as he took on his colleagues in one of the first chapters of his 600-page study, “Back in Black: A Deficit Reduction Plan.”

He notes that Congress’s own budget has risen 55 percent over the past 10 years, from $1.2 billion in 2000 to $2.3 billion in 2010, the highest level in the body’s history.

He pointed out that Senate staffs swelled “by nearly 25 percent, to 6,099 between 2001 and 2010.” On the House side, staff was up 11 percent, growing to 9,808.

One way that Congress should lead by example, he said, is by freezing its salaries for the next three years. Lawmakers currently receive pay increases calculated by formula, which meant a 2.8 percent pay raise in 2009. Such a system avoids the embarrassment of legislators having to vote themselves raises as they did in the past.

Coburn’s suggestion: “Congress should completely repeal the provision of law that provides automatic pay adjustments for members,” who currently make $174,000 a year.

Coburn also focuses on some little-publicized perks for congressional employees.

-Extra pay for staffers — above their salaries — in the form of student loan debt repayment. For House staff members, it is $10,000 a year up to a lifetime cap of $60,000; for the Senate, it is $6,000 a year, with a cap of $40,000. The total payments amounted to $18 million. The House Appropriations Committee apparently agrees. It cut out funds for the tuition program in its fiscal 2012 Legislative Appropriations Bill, citing “lack of ­authorization.” The Senate ­Appropriations Committee has not acted on the fiscal 2012 legislative budget.

- Lawmakers can give their staff members who use public transportation up to $230 per month. The funds come out of   a special account, not their budgets.

In the last 10 years, while Senate personal staffs were growing, primarily among those serving back in home states, and Senate committee staffs were also increasing, “oversight seems to have shrunk,” Coburn said.

He pointed out that “leadership offices” in both the House and the Senate had the “biggest rise in staff over the last three decades, more than tripling in size since 1977.”

Coburn’s suggestion: “Congress should consider reorganizing and consolidating its leadership and committee structure to ensure that it is designed to promote oversight, eliminate unneeded turf battles, and rationalize jurisdictions.”

The House committee cut the House leadership account by 6.4 percent.

Another Coburn suggestion may be on its way toward approval. The senator wants to cut off about $12 million a year in spending on the Open World Leadership Center, a project created in 2000 by Congress that sponsors exchange trips for political leaders and jurists from former Soviet states. Calling it a “noble cause,” Coburn said it should be shifted to private donors.

House Appropriations reduced the request to $1 million, saying   it should be “for shutdown ­expenses.”

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