Threats to committees’ budgets prompts uproar

Many committee chairmen and ranking members expressed outrage to the House Administration Committee yesterday, saying the modest size of increases to committee budgets this year will prevent lawmakers from increasing staff pay and hurt the chances of attracting new employees.

At a committee budget-requests hearing, which continues today, committee leaders outlined the legislative issues they plan to broach and said they may be unable to complete their work without the flexibility to spend more on staffing.

House Administration Committee Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) stressed that each committee would receive a 2.4 percent increase this year because no budget was passed last year.

The increase starts at the “baseline of last year’s budget with a very modest increase for inflation,” Millender-McDonald told each set of committee chairmen and ranking members who testified yesterday. The House Administration Committee oversees budget authorizations for House committees and members of Congress.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was especially vocal in his displeasure.

“I am embarrassed to be an exploiter of such talented and hardworking people,” Frank said. “Don’t paint my walls or replace my rugs. Give those people the raises they deserve.”

Millender-McDonald assured Frank that she would notify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of his concern, which echoed the alarm of many committee chairs.

“We do have very, very talented staff on the committees and pay is really something that we should be embarrassed by,” Millender-McDonald said. “I will talk to the Speaker about that.”

House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) apologized for not being able to offer committees more funds.

“I hope we don’t have another aborted appropriations process next year,” he said. The “only hope for salvation,” he stated, is in next year’s request.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has not gotten a funding boost in quite some time, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. It has 15 open committee staff positions that cannot be filled because of the lack of  resources.

House Transportation Committee ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) also stressed the importance of adequate pay.

“Its getting harder and harder to retain [staff] because they can go out and make double their salary almost instantly,” he said.

“When [Republicans] assumed the majority in 1995, we committed to giving the minority one-third of the resources and staff allocation for committees … and I hope and expect the new majority to continue to honor it,” Ehlers said.

Most chairmen said they would continue to abide by the two-thirds principle. The Armed Services Committee leaders, however, said they operate on a bipartisan basis and share the bulk of the staff.

Pelosi has allocated an additional $500,000 for the Armed Services Committee on top of the 2.4 percent increase, Millender-McDonald said. In addition to increasing funds for Armed Services, Millender-McDonald said would be asking Pelosi to consider making an exception for the Foreign Relations and Homeland Security committees.

Despite Pelosi’s promise to increase funding for the Armed Services Committee, the leaders requested an increase of $6.9 million in 2007 and $8.6 million in 2008.

“This does represent a significant increase,” Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said. Nevertheless, he said that his committee authorizes over 50 percent of the entire discretionary spending in the budget.

Skelton said that the panel is requesting money to increase the number of committee staffers.

“Frankly, we need them,” Skelton said. “We’re not here for any gravy. It’s all meat and potatoes.”