The Washington Post

Legislative branch prepares for spending cuts

The Capitol dome silhouetted against the rising sun in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers will return to work Monday after a week-long break, with $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect in four days.

Congressional offices and agencies have remained largely quiet on the issue compared with the executive branch, where top officials — from President Obama to Cabinet members such as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta — have warned against the budget cuts known as sequestration, in speeches and with testimonies before congressional committees.

But that doesn’t mean the legislative branch would escape cuts.

The sequester would not affect lawmaker salaries, since their pay does not come from discretionary spending. But the reductions would hit their individual offices, as well as all legislative-branch agencies such as the Library of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office and U.S. Capitol Police.

Agencies that have sent letters to employees have noted similar strategies: imposing hiring freezes, reducing travel expenses, trimming funding for technology upgrades and reworking some contracts.

Furloughs stand out as one of the greatest concerns among federal workers, because they mean less pay for the year and fewer days for employees to do their jobs.

Some congressional agencies have said they expect to avoid unpaid leave if the sequester happens, while others have said they may resort to the measure for a few days.

The Government Accountability Office told employees in a memo last week that furloughs probably wouldn’t be necessary for the agency, based on the latest estimates for a reduction target.

“We have been allocating our funds since the start of the fiscal year in a very conservative manner, recognizing that sequestration might go into effect,” Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said in the memo.

“We project that we would no longer require furloughs at GAO this year to absorb the potential reduction associated with sequestration,” Dodaro added.

Likewise, a spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol said in an e-mail last week that the organization doesn’t think furloughs will be necessary to meet the reduction target.

What remains to be seen is just what the reduction targets would be. The latest estimate from the White House budget office said the sequester would require across-the-board cuts of “roughly 5 percent for non-Defense programs.”

The Congressional Budget Office calculated 5.3 percent for the same category.

Even based on those estimates, some legislative agencies don’t think they can avoid furloughs under the sequester.

The Library of Congress last week warned its employees that the cuts would probably require four days of unpaid leave, with individual workers scheduling one of those days in coordination with supervisors, while the other three would come during library closings at times when the facilities would normally be open.

The Government Printing Office wasn’t so specific, saying by e-mail that “furloughs may also have to be implemented” in addition to plans for a hiring freeze, limits on overtime and reductions in travel and training.

Although the sequester could have an impact on lawmakers’ local and Capitol Hill offices, it remains unclear how many members of Congress would impose layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts to meet the reduction targets. Only those who expect to avoid such measures commented for this report.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said his office prepared for the sequester during the past year by stopping pay raises, reducing travel, eliminating its staff retreat and cutting back on mailings — resorting to more cost-effective digital communications instead.

“We’ve kept awfully lean this year just on the assumption that this might happen,” Cole said. “We’ll make the adjustments, but we won’t have to furlough and we won’t reduce services in terms of case work or answering constituent questions.”

The automatic cuts were established with the intent that they would be so undesirable that lawmakers would be motivated to reach a budget compromise. But with the cuts days away and Democrats and Republicans as far apart as ever, observers say the reductions appear to be inevitable.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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