SEQUESTRATION:

Mandatory cuts hit congressional panels, too -- but impact is hard to gauge

This story was updated at 12:36 p.m. EDT.

In the past year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has consolidated staff positions, canceled subscriptions, switched to refurbished printer cartridges and implemented a "paperless hearing policy."

And that was before sequestration cut the committee budget by an additional 11 percent this year.

In all, the panel has seen its budget shrink by 20 percent since 2009, when it received $11.8 million to pay for everything from staff salaries to computer equipment. This year, it must stay within a budget of about $9.5 million.

At a March hearing, the panel's leaders painted a grim picture of the future. Such a small budget would cut "deeply beyond operations and into personnel costs and essential functions," Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) warned. Ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he would only be able to fill 80 percent of minority staff positions.

"There is no way we can do our job ensuring that the taxpayers are protected with one out of every five slots unfilled," he told the House Administration Committee.

House Administration Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) was apparently unmoved. After the hearing, her panel -- which controls committee spending -- introduced a bill slashing the budgets of House committees by an average of 11 percent. When it got to the House floor, Upton voted for it, along with the vast majority of Republicans.

It's a dance that has become familiar since Republicans took over the House in 2011. Over two days at the beginning of each year, GOP chairmen plead with the House Administration Committee for a bigger budget; a few weeks later, they fall in line with leadership's desire to use the House budget as an example of responsible spending.

Over the past three years, House committees have seen their budgets cut by 22 percent from a total of about $300 million in the 111th Congress to about $240 million today. The cuts were deepest this year due to the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

But it's hard to gauge whether the cuts have had the disastrous results committee leaders forewarned.

Much of the scaling back has happened behind the scenes. Less paper is printed, fewer flights are booked, and salaries are cut. House Administration has also implemented chamberwide services to cut costs, such as free video teleconferencing and a Library of Congress website that hosts all hearing webcasts.

And committees tend to not spend their entire budgets by the end of the year. In 2012, many still had hundreds of thousands of dollars in their coffers by Dec. 31. Some of that may be delayed receipts; it can also indicate caution, wherein the panel keeps salaries low or delays equipment upgrades to ensure the money doesn't run out.

But it's indisputable that the budget cuts have meant fewer positions. A spokeswoman for Waxman said more vacant positions mean heavier workloads for staffers -- and more reliance on interns.

In a recent interview, Upton said his panel has "made some pretty big adjustments" in the past few years to meet its new bottom line.

As an example, he pointed to the departure of Todd Harrison last fall. Harrison was chief counsel on the panel's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, spearheading the high-profile investigation of Solyndra. When Harrison left, the deputy chief counsel -- Karen Christian -- took his place.

In the nine months since, the panel has not had the money to hire someone for Christian's old job.

According to monthly reports submitted to the House Administration Committee, the Energy and Commerce panel spent about $748,000 on salaries last month -- about $85,000 less than May 2012.

Spending on printing and travel also saw a sharp decline. In May 2012, the committee spent $247 on printing and $2,470 on travel. Printing cost a mere $56 last month, while travel was down to $284 for taxis and "travel subsistence."

Still, Upton said, "I didn't bitch." The cuts, he said, were merely part of sequestration -- a burden that lawmakers failed to stop.

"Congress cannot be exempt from this," he said.

The Natural Resources Committee has taken similar steps, cutting its "nonstaff salary" expenses in half to a little more than $400,000 annually, or 6 percent of the panel's total budget.

Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) asked the House Administration Committee to freeze its budget in 2013; instead, its budget got cut by 11 percent, or more than $800,000.

In March, Hastings warned that such a reduction would "require impactful adjustments to the existing staff of the committee." He reminded colleagues that his committee has a wide-reaching jurisdiction, from almost 600 national parks to billions of dollars in natural gas and oil leasing.

"For the majority, positions identified as core capabilities just last year would now go unfilled, and positions occupied at the beginning of the year would need to be vacant by the end of the year," Hastings said, adding that an 11 percent cut would mean doubling permanent vacancies in his staff from three to six.

Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, the panel's top Democrat, said the cut would make it hard to recruit and retain experienced employees -- a concern echoed by many chairmen and ranking members.

"The committee would not be able to maintain the pace of legislative activity to which the chairman and I are committed and which the demands from our colleagues require," he said.

That's hard to tabulate. Last month, Natural Resources held full committee markups on 18 bills -- far more than in May 2012. April of this year was also busier than in 2012. But the ebb and flow of legislation changes throughout the year, making comparisons potentially misleading.

Beyond legislation, some committee leaders argued that cutting their budgets would actually cost the taxpayers money. Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) compared his panel to an agency's inspector general; both, he said, audit government and find more savings than they spend.

Panel ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was even more emphatic.

"I realize that we are going through some very, very difficult times," Cummings told the House Administration Committee in March. "But at some point, we have got to ask ourselves where does the cutting get to a point where it basically becomes counterproductive?"

In the end, the panel did better than some, getting a 10 percent reduction, or almost $1 million.

The Science, Space and Technology Committee, meanwhile, fared among the worst, with an 11.7 percent cut. It is part of a trend; the panel's budget has received among the deepest cuts since 2010 -- a fact its leaders have not been shy about pointing out.

"I am a fiscal conservative, but I also believe in fairness," Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in March. "The staff is working hard. But to be more effective, we will need to be treated like other committees."

The Senate's murkier bottom line

The Senate is far less transparent about its spending. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee presides over committee budgets, and staffers did not respond to multiple requests for information.

In February, the chamber passed resolutions with budgets for the remainder of the fiscal year. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, for example, got nearly $3.2 million to spend between March 1 and Sept. 30. That's on par with its fiscal 2012 budget, which was about $6.2 million for the year.

But sequestration -- which applied across the board -- ostensibly decreased that by 8 to 10 percent.

A staffer for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the panel, said the "bottom line is far fewer resources, including fewer staff to cover the same issues if not more, given the heavy workload of the committee."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee he leads faces a similar situation. His panel usually gets about $8 million annually; an 8 percent decrease would mean a $640,000 reduction.

Under sequestration, staffers are doubling up on responsibilities, Rockefeller said. When asked about field hearings, he said, "I suspect that's going to be much harder."

At least one senator, however, disputed the notion that sequestration was a hardship.

"I give back money every year," said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who is well-known for his criticism of government waste. "I practice what I preach."

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