"Austerity" is supposed to be the word on Capitol Hill this year, but some House committees haven't gotten the message.
Of the 10 committees that have submitted budget requests so far, two committees asked for increases of more than 60 percent above what they spent last year on operating expenses and supplementary staff. Five asked for 20 to 30 percent more, and only three asked for an increase of less than 16 percent.
The budget requests are for funds in excess of the approximately $1.4 million each committee gets by law to hire up to 30 staff people.
Since Congress is expected to produce little in the way of new legislation during this era of holding down federal spending to slow inflation, congressional leaders have said committees will oversee existing programs instead of writing new laws.
Ironically, the committees are using the need for "oversight" to justify the requests for increases in staff and committee expenses.
Rep. Ray Roberts (D-Tex.), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, summarized it this way: "As you know, the Speaker has suggested we emphasize oversight functions in this Congress. In order to accomplish this we plan a number of field hearings, inspections and investigations to se if money appropriated for programs administered by the Veterans Administration is being put to effective use." Roberts asked for an increase in travel expenses to $106,000 for this year, compared with the $33,000 the committee spent last year.
The committee spent $273,246 on expenses last session, and this session asked for $425,000, a 31 percent increase. The House Administration Committee, which rules on the budget requests of House Committees, gave it $400,000.
But the prize for what one House Administration Committee member called staff "aggrandizement" went to the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes.
Ways and Means, which spent $1.8 million last year, asked for a whopping $2.9 million this year, a 63 percent increase.
Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) said he chaired "a growing committee," and needed additional staff for the trade and revenue subcommittees. He asked for a 162 percent increase in travel funds to $225,000, and $75,000 to hire consultants. "We have 25 percent of the total outlays of government under our jurisdiction," Ullman said.
"I wonder what we would say if President Carter came in with a budget 63 percent over what was expended last year," Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Administration accounts subcommittee asked. The committee gave Ullman $2 million.
Likewise, the Small Business Committee asked for a 70 percent increase from the $646,747 it spent last year to $1.053 million this year.
Ranking Republican Joseph McDade (Pa.) said the money was to "get a handle on some of the dollars misappropriated by the agency (the Small Business Administration)."
Brademas pointed out Small Business was using only 12 of the 30 staff people it was allotted by law. The committee was given $752,650.
Three years ago, the cost of running Congress reached a billion dollars, and last session congressional leaders tried hard to come in just under that to erase the "billion-dollar Congress" image. Brademas said staffs were "growing slightly, but not much" this year.
"Often Congress gets a bum rap on staff," Brademas said, adding that it must compete with a much larger executive branch, and complained executive-branch growth gets "insufficient attention."
But a member of Brademas's subcommittee, Rep. William Ratchford (D-Comm.), said "I find it difficult to go to the American public and say you must sacrifice, when we see committees seeking levels of funding 20 to 30 percent above the level" of last year.
"If the American public is asked to bite the bullet, and if Congress is not sacrificing, how can we ask the American people to sacrifice?" Ratchford asked.