Staff frustrated with lack of guidance from House leaders on sequester

GOP leaders are giving precious little guidance to members about whether they'll need to furlough aides or cut office budgets if the sequester goes into effect on Friday.

A memo obtained by The Hill and sent to offices by the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee on Feb. 15 warned lawmakers their Members' Representational Allowance (MRA) would be adjusted downward if the automatic spending cuts are triggered on March 1.

But the memo gave no recommendations on how members should seek to get their budgets in line, and simply warned they should be careful about what they spend, given the looming cuts.

"Information concerning any adjustments to your MRA will be made available as soon as possible," the memo from Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) said. "In the meantime, members are encouraged to be mindful of the uncertain fiscal environment when making spending commitments."

GOP chiefs of staff pressed high-ranking leadership aides for more information about the cuts at a recent meeting, according to several sources familiar with the meeting.

“People asked, 'what do you suggest?' " one source said of the dissuasion.

"There's members that have been here 10 to 20 terms and you've got senior staff that are making a certain amount of money, you can't very well tell them that they all have to take pay cuts ... if you are locked into a lease, you can't renegotiate that lease, so what are people supposed to do? And nobody has the right answer for that,” one source told The Hill.

At the beginning of the year, members were told that they would have one million dollars to work with — a figure that would be revised up once appropriators worked out government funding for the rest of the year.

Each office received a tentative figure for its MRA in the Feb. 15 memo, which was hand-delivered.

The figures varied with each office, as MRAs are adjusted based on a number of factors, including the distance the lawmaker must travel to Washington from his or her district.

The letter made it clear that the tentative budget figure could be reduced by as much as 10 percent because of the sequester.

For some offices, that could mean a loss of as much as $150,000 dollars for the rest of the year.

For example, a member who would have received $1.38 million for the year would have to operate with closer to $1.17 million. That number is on top of the 11 percent cut that offices took over the past few years, when Republicans took control of the House.

Members use their MRAs to pay staffers, rent office space in the district, travel back and forth to the district and send out mailings to constituents. Each member receives an MRA based on a formula that takes into consideration the district’s distance from D.C., the physical size of the district and the going rate of office space in the districts.

A House GOP leadership aide told The Hill that it's difficult to give guidance to staff when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not provided many details about the potential cuts.

“We’ve provided our members with all the information that we currently have, and OMB won’t provide us with any more specific information until the sequester is actually triggered. We understand that uncertainty can be unsettling, but we can't give offices information we don't have," the aide said.

Many offices have already begun to take steps to deal with the cuts.

In fact, a handful of junior lawmakers sent out releases last week boasting of their anticipated returns to the federal coffers.

South Carolina sophomore Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) announced that he would be “returning around $200,000," or 15.2 percent, of his overall budget. He boasted that the cut is on top of a mandatory 11.1 percent cut offices took over the past two years.

Other offices have refrained from filling positions when staffers have left the office, or have already had to consolidate some jobs.

GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) told The Hill that he had to lay off one of his employees due to the impending sequester.

“I laid someone off two weeks ago … I combined two positions into one,” Lamborn said.

One chief of staff told The Hill that some offices are considering paying for franked mail with campaign funds. Instead of spending close to $300,000 on mailings to constituents, the member would pay for that mail with his or her respective campaign money.

“Constituents would probably like it because a lot of them complain about the fact that we're wasting money sending out mail to them,” the high-ranking staffer said in an interview.

One veteran chief of staff lamented that his office hasn’t given raises to its employees for several years — worrying that without a reward for their hard work, it will be difficult to attract bright individuals to Capitol Hill.

“What's the incentive for smart talented people to come work for Congress?” the source said.

This story was updated at 10:13 a.m.