House members yesterday voted themselves more spending money - some $4,000 to $14,000 apiece beginning next year, an election year.
If all members take what they're entitled to, it could cost the taxpayers an additional $3.4 million.
The vehicle for yesterday's action was a district office space resolution which was described by House Administration Committee Chairman Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) as needed so members, particularly new ones, could have funds to rent "the requisite number of district offices."
Rep. William Frenzel (R-Minn.) called yesterday's action a "bonanza" to the 70 per cent of House members who need no more rental money but could use the increased allowance for "newsletters, travel and any other expense creative imagination could justify."
Under House rules, members can transfer excess allowance funds from one account to another.
After a short but sharp debate, punctuated at one point by hisses, the resolution passed 215 to 193 on a roll-call vote.
As with most housekeeping resolutions, yesterday's appeared to be an innocuous measure that simply increased from 1,500 square feet to 2,500 square feel the amount of home-district office space to which each member will be entitled.
Under House rules, the district office rental allowance is determined by multiplying the permitteed amount of office space by the average federal rental rate in each member's district as established by the General Services Administration.
In July, 1976, in the wake of the congressional sex, pay and play scandals, the House approved as part of its reforms the 1,500-square-foot district office space for each of its members. Thereafter, according to Thompson, 140 members discovered their new dollar allowance was not enough to cover the offices they already occupied. One reason was that many members had been in rent-free federal buildings for which they had to start paying.
Another 117 members' offices, according to Thompson, exceeded 1,500 square feet but rented below the GSA rate and so stayed within the allowances. A staff member of Thompson's committee said later that the new allowance was really a contingency increase for those 117, who, because of inflation, shortly will have pay more for their space.
The GSA rental rates for congressional districts range from $4 to $14 a square foot, according to a House administration staff member. Thus the 1,000-square-foot increase means an allowance rise of anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000 a year. The highest rates reportedly are in the Philadelphia area, where several members are now living within the current allowance. Thus they would have up to an additional $14,000 available to them beginning next year.
A leading opponent of the resolution was Rep. William Dickinson (R-Ala.), the ranking minority member of Thompson's committee, Dickinson told the House he was one of the 140 who exceeded the dollar allowance, by $400 in his case. But, he added, the new allowance would give him an additional $5,600 or $5,200 he could use for other expenses.
Thompson pointed out that a member did not have to draw the allowance and the money would remain in the Treasury, a remark that drew hoots from the Republican side of the aisle.
Another opponent, Rep. James C. Cleveland (R-N.H.) pointed out that the House this past spring had approved a new $5,000 expense allowance for each member that could be used in part to cover any rental shortages Cleveland concluded by saying, "Unfortunately, the reforms that follow recent scandals have all had a price," and he suggested that an additional $20 million in House expenses may be proposed in the future.