Members propose a freeze in office funding during economic downturn

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers wants to freeze spending on their offices’ operations until the nation’s unemployment rate and national debt are lower.

Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is leading the charge to eliminate any increase in member representational allowance (MRA). The measure would prohibit an MRA increase in any year that the national unemployment rate is above 6 percent or in any previous fiscal year that the Treasury Department has declared the nation’s debt more than $5.5 trillion.

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“Until this Congress addresses the fundamental challenges facing our economy, I believe we need to start feeling the same pain as the American people,” Heller said at a Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations hearing Wednesday.

“When it comes to our own office budgets, Congress has spent without regard for our constituents’ hardships.”

The mounting support for the freeze comes as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the subcommittee chairwoman, declared that any possible raise in the office allowance that members receive next year is expected to be small.

“If there’s any increase at all, it’s what I would characterize as a very modest increase,” said Wasserman Schultz on Wednesday in an interview, adding that this year’s increase was 1.6 percent.

“We have to balance the concern with it being a difficult fiscal year, which it is, with making sure that we’re funding the MRA enough to be able to do the job that Congress needs to do.”

The measure has been referred to the House Administration Committee. Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said that while he wasn’t certain whether the bill was scheduled to be taken up, he could see where Heller was coming from.

“I can certainly understand what he’s talking about, when the country’s hurting and we’re spending money ourselves, so I’ll look into it,” he said in an interview.

No door-to-door service for tours

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on Wednesday shot down a repeated request from a tour guide advocacy group to allow tour buses to drop elderly or disabled visitors to the Capitol on the East Front, near the entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC).

For security reasons, U.S. Capitol Police require tour buses visiting the Capitol to drop passengers on the West Front. Tourists are then forced to hike uphill to get to the CVC or take one of six new shuttle carts if they’re not physically able to make the climb.

“As someone who represents a district in south Florida, which has a disproportionate amount of senior citizens … I have a particular sensitivity to [the issue],” said Wasserman Schultz at the subcommittee hearing.

“But with all due respect, the train has left the station on whether or not they’re going to get a drop-off in front of the CVC. That’s not going to happen; that’s been decided; it’s done.”

Wasserman Schultz advised the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. at the Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations hearing that they should use the new shuttle carts this year.

If the elderly groups, such as the “Honor Flights” of veterans who frequently visit, find them to be inadequate, then the subcommittee would consider appropriating more money to purchase more or larger shuttle carts next year, she said.

Police forces merger is being explored

Lawmakers and Capitol officials on Wednesday began exploring the possibility of merging the Government Printing Office’s (GPO) police department with that of the U.S. Capitol Police force (USCP).

While the discussions are still premature, the possible merger was met with buoyant support from both GPO and USCP union representatives, both of whom pointed to the Library of Congress police force’s absorption into the Capitol Police as a good blueprint.

The potential combination of forces comes as GPO Police Union Chairman Alvin Hardwick listed problems he says are plaguing the department, from a dismal officer retention rate to unreasonably high hiring standards.

Congress seeking to dust off technology assessment office

Lawmakers renewed a push on Wednesday to revive a congressional agency charged with providing members with analytical reports on technological and scientific issues.

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was shut down in 1995 after newly elected Republicans said many of the services it provided to Congress were not necessary because other agencies, such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Congressional Research Service (CRS), already tackled them.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) pushed lawmakers on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations to re-fund the OTA, saying that now more than ever, Congress needs to be advised on matters of science and technology.

“In OTA’s absence, this institution’s need for its work has grown only more acute,” he said at the hearing. “In recent times, we have not brought great credit to ourselves for our ability to deal with science and technology issues or to recognize the emerging trends or implications of technology.”

Panel Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said that if more members support the OTA’s revival, there is $2.5 million devoted to the GAO’s technology-related research that could be used.

“I want there to be more clear bipartisan support from the subcommittee, so we’re a long way from getting there, and we have to make sure that leadership is supportive of it,” she said in an interview. “I want to make sure that there’s buy-in and that the authorization is updated.”