Sequester surprise: Lawmakers tighten their own belts
WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are traveling less and worrying more about meeting office salaries. Their aides are contending with long lines to get inside their offices and fewer prospects of a raise.
Such are the indignities thrust upon the men and women who brought the country $85 billion in government spending cuts this month.
There probably won't be much sympathy for a senator or congressman making $174,000 a year who is in no danger of being furloughed or laid off, at least not until the next election. Still, there has been an effort, especially in the Republican-led House, to show that no one should be exempt from sacrifice.
"As those who are charged with the care of taxpayers' dollars, we need to lead by example," Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who chairs the House Administration Committee, said last week in promoting a bill to slash the budgets of House committees by 11 percent.
Earlier this month -- after Congress and the White House failed to come up with an alternative to across-the-board cuts in most federal programs -- the House imposed an 8.2 percent reduction in lawmakers' personal office budgets. That came on top of 11 percent cuts to members' office budgets during 2011-12.
"We've drastically reduced travel, both for myself and my staff," said Republican Rep. John Campbell, who must cross the country to visit his Southern California district. He said he tends to stay in Washington on two-day weekends rather than return home. "I'm more productive here when I'm not rushing to get home."
Campbell said other "little things" he is doing to economize include reducing the office phone bill, cutting off magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and using email, rather than letters, to communicate with voters.
Rep. Luke Messer, a freshman Republican from Indiana, said he hired fewer people when he came to Washington because "we essentially began the term knowing there was a high possibility of a sequester"-- Washington-speak for the automatic spending cuts.
So far, congressional staffers appear to have escaped the furloughs that are likely to send thousands of public servants home without pay for several workdays over the next six months and disrupt some government services.
"I hope to avoid that," said Rep Jared Polis, D-Colo., "but we will take any steps to ensure we don't exceed our budget."
Under House rules, a lawmaker must pay for excess spending out of his or her own pocket.
The fiscal pressures are less strong in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where senators have staff budgets about double the amount of the $1.3 million average in the House and where the office cuts ordered because of the sequester were limited to 5 percent.
While staffers still have their jobs, they might have a harder time getting to them. Security officials have cut costs by closing 10 entrances and several side streets around the Capitol Complex, creating long lines to get through screening stations. People "have started to adjust to those changes at the entrances," although it is still a challenge on busy days, said U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer.
Gainer, who oversees nearly 1,000 security and administrative employees, said he hopes to abide by the 5 percent sequester cut without layoffs by enlisting 70 or 80 people for a voluntary retirement program.
Some House members also are feeling the pinch during the two-week Easter break, a prime time for foreign "fact-finding" tours. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced last month that members must book commercial flights rather than make use of more convenient but more expensive military aircraft.
Some Democrats have complained that the Republican enthusiasm for frugality has come at too high a cost.
"At a time when most members of this body are representing newly formed congressional districts with a need to open new offices or move to new locations, we find ourselves with an 8.2 percent decrease in the very operating budgets that support constituent services," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
Wasserman Schultz, who also is the Democratic Party's chairwoman, criticized House Republicans for cutting budgets while spending about $3 million for the legal defense of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
"We are past the point of cutting what we want, and we are now into cutting what we need -- our ability to attract and retain expert staff," said Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the House Administration Committee.
Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve congressional operations, said it's still possible that House members will have to resort to furloughs or layoffs. So far, he said, they have been able to cope with the cuts of the past three years with less-drastic steps, such as reducing the size of their staffs through attrition, making more use of interns and using email rather than mass postal mailings.
At the end of 2011, Fitch's group recommended 46 ways for members to cut $90,000 from their 2012 budgets, ranging from pay freezes, holding more town hall meetings by telephone, delaying purchases of new computers, eliminating Washington staffers' visits to district offices, closing district offices, eliminating bottled water from offices and reviewing spending on food and beverages for constituents.