Additional budget cuts could force House committees to lay off staffers

Lawmakers expressed significant concerns about the ability of House committees to maintain staffing levels and perform congressional duties as they stare down additional budget cuts.

In July, the House approved the fiscal year 2012 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, instituting a 6.4 percent cut to leadership, committee and personal office budgets for the coming year. This is on top of a 5 percent cut committees already took in January 2011.

On Wednesday, the Committee on House Administration heard testimony from the chairmen and ranking members of nearly 20 House committees. While many gave assurances that such necessary cuts would be made, several voiced concerns about the impact of such cuts on committee staff.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, said his staffers had already experienced salary cuts as a result of the last budget cutback.

Noting that his one-third committee budget in the minority meant “there’s a lot less room for maneuverability,” Van Hollen warned that the committee might have to lay off staff if new across-the-board budget cuts are made.

The picture was far bleaker for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) agreed that they would both have to lay off attorneys if the full 6.4 percent cuts came to pass.

Projections were even worse for the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) explained that approximately 98 percent of the committee’s budget went to payroll.

If they received a 6.4 percent cut, “the only way to achieve budget compliance would be to reduce our workforce,” he testified.

Ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said that the specter of sequestration — due to the congressional supercommittee’s failure to reach an agreement to cut the federal deficit — resulted in far greater work for the Armed Services Committee that further funding cuts could jeopardize.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Ethics Committee, also said that further cuts could mean eliminating positions on her committee down the line.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce could also be hard-hit by additional budget cuts.

Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) warned that while he was confident the committee would weather an additional 6.4 percent cut in resources, any cuts above and beyond that would compromise the ability of the committee to carry out its agenda.

“I have serious concerns that additional cuts could threaten our ability to conduct rigorous oversight while carrying out our legislative responsibility,” he testified.

Even if committees didn’t face the threat of layoffs, lawmakers cautioned that fewer financial resources would impact their ability to attract and keep qualified staffers.

“I am very nervous that another round of cuts will mean that we’re not able to keep or attract the kind of quality staff that we all need,” said Van Hollen.

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) also cautioned that if the House continued down the path of further cuts, his committee would “only be staffed by 20-somethings” because they wouldn’t be able to afford more experienced staff.

House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) praised the committee heads for their willingness and ability to operate in a more constrained fiscal environment. But he added that budget cuts were needed as the U.S. faced a $15 trillion debt and trillion-dollar annual deficits.

“The financial realities facing this country are dire and demand drastic cuts in federal spending,” Lungren warned. “As stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, not only must we rein in government spending, but we must also lead by example. We too must do more with less.”