APPROPRIATIONS:

House panels grappling with steep budget cuts

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will stop filling vacant positions, delay equipment upgrades and "severely" limit the number of field hearings in order to continue functioning with a budget cut for the second year in a row.

The panel is not alone: All but one of the House's 19 committees will see a cut to their bottom line next year in a funding resolution passed by the House Administration Committee last week. The aim is to meet the 6.4 percent overall reduction laid out in the recently passed legislative branch spending bill.

At a hearing on committee budgets last month, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said his staff could "with some adjustments" live within the 6.4 percent cut. But he also expressed concern that he might lose the qualified staffers who act as the panel's backbone -- many of whom took a pay cut to serve on the committee in the first place.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the panel's ranking member, was more emphatic.

"A cut in funding would have deleterious consequences," he said. "It would mean that we could not replace departing staff, we could not participate in committee field hearings -- which shouldn't be all that difficult since we're not going to have any next year -- and we would have to eliminate paid subscriptions to newspapers and online news services and databases."

The budget cut is particularly debilitating because committees already underwent a 5 percent reduction this year, in an effort to show solidarity with voters in tough economic times. Usually, committee budgets are authorized for two calendar years; committee chairmen had expected that they would operate under the same budget in 2012 as they had in 2011.

But congressional appropriators did not spare Congress' budget in their fiscal 2012 spending package, forcing House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) to pass a new funding resolution in line with the budget's reality. The result is in essence a more than 10 percent reduction since 2010.

"The financial realities facing this country are dire and demand drastic restrictions in federal spending," Lungren told committee leaders. "As stewards of taxpayer dollars, not only should we rein in government spending, we should lead by example, so we too should do more with less."

In the end, the House Administration Committee imposed one of the heftier cuts on its own budget, with a 7.1 percent reduction. The Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Small Business Committee also suffered large reductions, at 10 percent and 7.5 percent respectively. The Armed Services Committee will see a 2 percent cut because of the work ahead on the $500 billion in defense cuts scheduled for 2013 as per August's debt ceiling deal.

Meanwhile, the budgets of the Energy and Commerce, Transportation and Infrastructure, Agriculture, and Oversight and Government Reform committees will be reduced by about 6.4 percent. Only the Ethics Committee gets a pass -- and an 11.5 percent increase -- in order to cover the cost of an outside consultant for an ongoing investigation into Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Last month, some committee leaders characterized such cuts as detrimental to their panels' functions.

Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said his panel would "find a way" to function under the reduced budget, but he warned that his committee had few resources to oversee the tens of billions of dollars in revenue from energy leasing and production.

"There is a point at which budget reductions cross from belt-tightening to impacting core oversight functions," Hastings said in his testimony to House Administration. "While it's my hope that a possible 6.4 percent reduction could be absorbed without unduly impacting our core duties, a reduction beyond that amount in 2012, or beyond, would certainly raise serious concerns."

Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also forcibly pushed back against further cuts, pointing out that the panel had been under financial constraints longer than some others. In 2010, he said, the Oversight committee got a 3.43 percent bump while Energy and Commerce "enjoyed a double-digit funding increase."

"The only way we can adequately fulfill our mandate for conducting aggressive and legitimate oversight is to have the resources needed to do it," Issa said. "Conducting meaningful, real oversight, can lead to billions in savings for the government."

Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were similarly concerned about how their work would be curtailed. The panel allocated more money in 2011 to travel for the farm bill field hearings, essentially borrowing from its 2012 pot. But it delayed the planned hearings to work on a debt reduction proposal for the deficit supercommittee.

The panel had assumed the 2012 budget would be identical; with the 6.4 percent cut, that means an extra-low budget for the coming year.

Lucas said that the committee would be hard up for the resources to hold the repeatedly delayed farm bill field hearings now scheduled for early next year. The hearings, he said, would allow the 23 new members of the committee to learn about the multiple elements of the package.

Peterson agreed that it was not an "ideal situation." But he mused that the farm bill has not passed by the Sept. 30 deadline before, "so it's not the end of the world. But people like the winter wheat guys end up planting not knowing what the situation is."

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