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Congressional Office Cuts: A Dog and Pony Show -- Damaging to Oversight

4 years ago
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Shortly after taking over as speaker of the House, John Boehner moved to enact a campaign pledge: trimming five percent from congressional office budgets, saving taxpayers around $35 million a year. Not to be outdone in deficit cutting zeal, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers singled out his panel to take an even greater cut -- 9 percent.

The measure, introduced by California Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, passed 410-13, with more than 177 Democrats joining a united Republican front.

"The one and only mandate we received from the American people in November was to put our economy and jobs first," said Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky. "Our budget axe will swing wide and true, and no area of the federal government will be immune from our scrutiny and cuts. Sacred cows are, for all intents and purposes, extinct."

With all due respect, gentlemen, give me a break.

To put it kindly, this resolution is a meaningless gesture designed to tap into mythology that congressional offices are awash in spending, hidden slush funds and lavish entitlements. But the truth is most congressional offices are run on a shoestring, with underpaid, inexperienced, and overworked staffers outgunned by a legion of lobbyists, who outnumber elected representatives by eight to one.

Cutting $35 million from $3.5 trillion in federal spending will only place staffers more at the mercy of well-informed and well-funded lobbyists and rob Congress of what little balance of power it has over the executive branch.

"You want to know what a scandal is?" said a senior congressional staffer to a leading Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee. "The Defense Subcomittee of Approps is less than 20 staffers." That's right. Less than 20 warm bodies to ward off the Pentagon and defense lobbyists squealing every year for more of our tax dollars to feed the bloated $700 billion military-industrial complex.

Republican representatives historically have cut their own budgets. After the GOP trounced Democrats in the 1994 elections, they slashed the number of House staffers by 12 percent in 1995 and 1996, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Although the overall number of House staffers has bounced back to pre-1994 levels, the distribution has changed: "Committee staff has declined nearly 28 percent" from late-1970s levels, while personnel for "House staff working for leadership and chamber officers . . . more than doubled," CRS found. Committee staffers often do the most serious kinds of oversight while staffers working out of lawmakers' offices are usually consumed with constituent-related work like veterans' benefits and Social Security queries. (Staffers working for Democratic and Republican leadership offices often do not conduct either investigative oversight or the more typical yearly oversight of agencies through the authorization or appropriations process.)

But even this does not tell the whole story of how congressional oversight was gutted in the mid-1990s. Congressional support agencies such as the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment do much of the heavy investigative lifting for Congress, especially when complicated technical or accounting issues are involved.

The GAO was trimmed from 5,062 staffers in 1992 to 3,350 staffers by 2010, a 34 percent cut. The OTA was eliminated by Republicans after 1994. This was unfortunate: OTA would have been very useful in assessing current issues such as the safety of offshore drilling.

But even if members of Congress have the money to hire staff, the salaries they offer determine quality. Republicans are big on running the country like a business, and I have a hard time disagreeing. But if you're going to run a competitive business, isn't it just common sense that you need to offer competitive pay?

An analysis released in December by the Sunlight Foundation found that House staff are paid less than employees doing similar work in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. For instance, a House press secretary earns around $61,628. A similar job in the private sector pays approximately $91,690. Furthermore, when you adjust for inflation, personal staff in the House have not had a salary increase in almost two decades. In some cases, salaries have actually decreased.

Until last year I spent 3½ years as an investigator for Republican Sen. Charles Grassley on the Senate Finance Committee, one of the top committees in the Senate. The Finance Committee has direct oversight of Medicare and Medicaid, about 19 percent of the federal budget. My job was to try to keep taxpayer dollars from going out the door to pay for frivolous and unnecessary medical procedures. As a Senate staffer investigating waste, fraud and abuse, I dealt with problematic federal agencies that would make your local DMV look like a model of Nordic efficiency.

One of my investigations involved sales of Avandia, marketed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Avandia was a $3.2 billion blockbuster pharmacuetical to treat diabetes, until a prominent study linked it to heart attacks. About a third of drug profits come from sales to state and federal programs that pay for medical benefits, meaning taxpayers spent about $1 billion annually for a drug that published research found could harm citizens.

In July of last year, documents became public that showed the company knew in 2000, shortly after Avandia came on market in 1999, that the drug could be risky to the heart. But when we asked the company for these documents, we hit a roadblock with their attorneys.

Another committee staffer and I agreed to meet with GSK's lawyers. The meeting was typical of what I encountered on the Hill. On one side of the table sat the company's legal team: four partners from two different law firms, including the top defense attorney in the nation for the pharmaceutical industry. Each one, I am sure, was billing out slightly less than a $1,000 an hour.

Representing taxpayers: me and my colleague from Sen. Max Baucus' staff, whose combined salaries translated to about $46 an hour. The FDA later placed severe marketing restrictions on the drug. Such is the drama often played out in Congress where young and inexperienced staff square off on complex topics against lobbyists much more senior and well-connected.

"The person in my position shouldn't be me. He shouldn't be 25," a staffer to a Southern Democrat told me recently. "I think my position should pay way more than it does --three times as much," and, he added, "the person should have some actual experience."

A Republican staffer working the last few years in the Senate found out what these cuts mean when it comes to hiring an applicant with experience in the House. The staffer sent in a stellar resume for a job with an incoming freshman. But when the new congressperson's chief of staff called, the only thing that came up was salary.

"They actually wanted me to take a salary cut," said the staffer, who was making less than $50,000 a year. "Are you kidding me? I don't even make anything as it is." Instead this aide is now sending out resumes to the private sector and is looking for a job as a lobbyist.

Paul D. Thacker is an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight and former investigator on the Senate Finance Committee for Sen. Charles Grassley.

Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, helped report this story.

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Oh, Puleeeeze. If a 5% cut means you will not get your job done, we need someone else doing it. Where is the public "servant"'s dedication to mission? If you don't want to git 'er done, go get another job that suits you.

February 01 2011 at 8:30 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

35 million dollars is a lot of money to me. They should cut as much spending as they can. It is a shame when people attack because they are doing the right thing. Republicans have plans that can cut 3.5 trillion dollars from the budget in ten years. They tell you were every cut is. Where is the story on that? How many 35 million dollar cuts does it take to make real money? You want to argue politics it is fine but to try to stop them from doing the right thing and under mining it when they do is just wrong.

January 23 2011 at 8:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

When is congress going to eliminate their ridiculous pension and perks?

January 22 2011 at 2:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have to beg to differ on the lumping of the Pentagon with the lobbyists who work for military contractors. Gates has said he can cut millions from the Pentagon budget, he wants to end the development of the so-called "swimming tank". However, Congress doesn't want to hear it. Ending the development of the "swimming tank" will hurt military contractors' bottom lines and Congress, more than worrying about the budget, are going to do what their big donors want and military contractors are huge donors. Fiscally conservative, the republicans are not.

January 21 2011 at 10:13 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Kudos to congress for the proposed cuts congressional office budgets.......... seems very logical given they rarely work a full 5 day week......

January 21 2011 at 9:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

So we'll be at the mercy of more lobbyists? Well, that is the Republicans plan - has been for quite a while.

January 21 2011 at 4:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vobox3343's comment

No more so than it has always been the Dem Plan. You do know the Dem members of Congress are just as wealthy as the right, right? Moreso in some cases.

January 21 2011 at 5:48 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

thacker? can't spell it without "hack". hackaratchik...
it is symbolic, but it is also real. real cuts are needed. only jobs that produce more than they cost should remain.. in and out of the government...and before you lecture me, of course the value of such "production" needs reasonable consideration of what have been heretofore referred to as "externalities", and the must include some notion (small, very conservatively limited, and very precisely explained and justified) purely public good along with the private.

for all those who are working 3.5 day weeks, or less, spending most of that figuring out how they can be better compensated, or watching the Premier league or shopping on-line, or leaving for home at 12:01 am when on the road and claiming to have worked that full day, etc etc... for all the crossword-puzzle bureaucrats and whiny is time to back up your bluff that you would do so much better in the private sector and are sacrificing so much to be a "public servant".... and for those with mixed motives, it it time to exorcise the crossword-puzzling-internet-surfing slacker in you to the extent he or she is present. the money that pays all govt folks has to first be earned and produced by others, and therefore should be suspect as spending cash right from the start.
time for govt on all levels to serve the public generally and not be seen as a place to serve yourself or to get your friends a job at the "_______ Services" office and all agree to work at a snail's pace in order to justify more jobs and funding....please stop it y'all.
work really hard, and be grateful to serve and to be paid to serve. we all need to do this or we will continue to sink.

January 21 2011 at 3:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Clearly the liberal media plans to attack anything and everything the new House leadership does to reign in years of wasteful wild Dem spending sprees in Congress that has our nation in historical debt very largely supported by China. Seems not only did Dems not get the loud message sent by America in the last election, but neither did the liberal media. It bodes very, very well for the GOP in 2012.

January 21 2011 at 3:07 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

The mentality expressed in this story is the typical attitude of a Government insider. The sky will fall if we don't maintain and/or increase Federal spending. Well is say "Nuts" to that thought process. How about if there are less Congresional staff there are less people to be influenced by the Lobbyists???? Maybe the Lobbyists then will diminish??? This "we can't do without more Government" mentality IS THE PROBLEM!!!!!!!!! Mr. Thacker, don't pee on my leg and then tell me it is raining. I have seen the by-product of Too-Much Government already and to tell me that cutting staff isn't the fix is BS, plain and simple.

January 21 2011 at 11:27 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Michael: His thesis is that this is NOT the place to cut AT ALL. It is a place to INCREASE expenditures so that Americans can CUT COSTS elsewhere and SAVE LIVES -- rather than allow lobbiests to bulldoze inexperienced staffers. There are FAR better places to cut.

January 21 2011 at 10:38 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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