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Congress turns budget-cutting knife on itself

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 7:48 PM

House Republicans are trying to send the message that the entire government needs to slim down. How much weight can Congress itself afford to lose?

The House will vote this week on a Republican bill that would cut government outlays from March 4 through the end of September by more than $60 billion from 2010 levels, and by close to $100 billion compared with President Obama's never-enacted budget request from last year. (The budget proposal released by the White House Monday covers fiscal 2012, while the GOP plan is for the remainder of fiscal 2011.)

Republican leaders have emphasized that nearly every corner of the government is on the chopping block, and the proposal includes a reduction of spending for the legislative branch of $194 million - or 4 percent - from 2010 levels, that will affect a wide variety of congressional operations.

"I've asked offices and programs to share the pain of tough spending cuts," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee.

Yet even in this climate of austerity, one category of Capitol Hill spending is actually going up - security.

In the wake of last month's shootings in Tucson that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), keeping members and their staffs safe has become a bigger priority. So as other accounts are pared back, the Capitol Police budget would actually go up under the Republican plan by $12.5 million, to a total of $340 million.

Part of the increase is attributable to an unexpected budget shortfall that was discovered last year and part is due to "an increase in agents as a result of the tragic shooting in Tucson," the Appropriations Committee said last week.

Rep. Michael M. Honda (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Legislative Branch subcommittee, said last week that he supported funding for the Capitol Police. "One of the reasons I wanted to stay on [the legislative branch panel] was because of what happened to Gabby," he said, but he questioned whether the GOP's proposed cuts elsewhere made sense.

The Republican plan would cut $29 million from the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains and services congressional buildings, as well as $41 million from the Library of Congress, $12 million from the Government Printing Office and $2 million from the Congressional Budget Office.

Spending on House operations overall would be reduced by $80 million. That includes a 7 percent cut in funds for the offices of lawmakers, committees and members of leadership. (The House bill does not cut Senate spending, since each chamber traditionally sets its own budget.)

Some budget experts question the wisdom of cutting congressional spending as a means to helping the federal bottom line. Hill committees and offices - including the Government Accountability Office, which is slated for a $34 million cut under the Republican plan - are tasked with providing oversight of the entire government, rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.

Scott Lilly, a former top Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee who now works as a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that cutting congressional staffs would mean that already overworked aides would be stretched even thinner.

House Republicans may get the headlines they want today, Lilly said, but "there's a price that you pay for the photo-op, in that we're going to know a lot less about government at a time when we need to know more."

Congressional employees' rights

On the topic of how the Hill runs itself, a new study recommends that Congress do more to protect the rights of its employees.

The Office of Compliance - an independent agency tasked with administering workplace rules on the Hill - releases a report every two years on potential improvements to the Congressional Accountability Act, the 1995 law requiring Congress to follow most federal labor and safety rules.

In the latest report, scheduled for release Tuesday, the OOC found "that Congress remains exempt from certain workplace laws that it passed to hold private and public sector employers accountable."

Congress is exempt from some statutes, including the Whistleblower Protection Act. "Congress recognizes whistleblowers as a key resource in weeding out fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars in the Federal Executive Branch and under some laws in the private sector," the report notes, "yet its own employees are denied whistleblower protections from retaliation if they report such illegalities."

The report adds that congressional employers are not required "to post notification to their employees of their workplace rights and keep personnel records so that employees have evidence to prove violations occurred. . . . Congress has also been inconsistently applying notice posting and recordkeeping requirements to itself."

Barbara L. Camens, the chairwoman of the OOC's board of directors, said the Congressional Accountability Act should be amended "to reflect current workplace rights norms in the private sector and the executive branch. Most of these rights and protections have been fundamental and basic to the private sector for many years."

The OOC has made many of the same recommendations in past reports.

ben.pershing@wpost.comben.pershing@wpost.com

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