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.