Budget Cuts

Guess who else is prepping for sequester cuts?

U.S. Capitol at Night

The coming sequestration budget cuts would affect Congress too.

For agency employees who fear Congress will allow across-the-board budget cuts to take effect on March 1, here's some small solace: House and Senate offices would also feel the squeeze.

While most discussion and media coverage has focused on the executive branch and federal contractors, Congress has begun preparations for the possibility that a government-wide sequester of spending could affect its own operations. And some aides have voiced concern that the resulting staff cutbacks could complicate lawmakers’ jobs, including their contacts with the public.

The budget sequester had been scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, according to the terms of the 2011 Budget Control Act. But as part of the New Year’s Day congressional deal that averted the so-called fiscal cliff, the spending cuts were delayed until March 1. The earlier law required Congress to cut spending by $1.2 trillion during the next 10 years -- reductions that the Office of Management and Budget said would equal 9.4 percent of covered defense spending this year, and 8.2 percent of non-defense funding that is not exempted under the law.

The House Administration Committee informed House members in December that the sequester applies to Congress, including its committees, and that lawmakers are “free to choose how they manage cuts to their office budget.” For most, a large majority of office spending is for staff salaries. An accompanying list of frequently asked questions about how the sequester would affect Congress focused heavily on the impact for furloughed staffers.

“That advice still applies,” even with the sequester delay and the Jan. 3 seating of the 113th Congress, committee spokeswoman Salley Wood told FCW. She added that lawmakers would have the option of imposing furloughs or targeted staff salary reductions. House authorities have not indicated how or whether employee benefits such as health insurance would be affected.

The prospective cutback of between $120,000 and $160,000 in yearly spending for most House offices would create “a major gap in our salaries and how we communicate with our constituents,” said the chief of staff to a House Democratic member. He added that House administrators already have advised lawmakers’ offices not to send general mailings, such as newsletters or notices of local meetings.

“These arbitrary cuts make no sense,” said the veteran aide. But he added that many offices have become reconciled to their implementation, due to a combination of Republicans who believe that the government spends too much overall, and Democrats who want to shrink the Pentagon’s budget.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee has not commented publicly on how Senate offices would be affected by the spending cutbacks.

But one key class of paychecks likely would be exempt from the automatic budget cuts. The members of Congress -- whose failure to comply with their own goals and timetable for deficit reduction has compounded the budget uncertainties -- are treated differently by federal spending rules, according to congressional budget experts. Their $174,000 salaries are mandatory because of constitutional requirements, while the compensation for their staff and for most government employees are discretionary.

About the Author

Richard E. Cohen, an FCW contributing writer, has covered Capitol Hill for more than three decades and is the author of several books on Congress.

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