Congressional budget-cutting starts at home

WASHINGTON–If you get fewer mailings next year from Rep. Rosa DeLauro touting Congress’s latest legislative achievements, don’t take it personally. Ditto if it takes longer than usual for Rep. Joe Courtney’s office to respond to a constituent inquiry.

The state’s five Democratic members of the U.S. House will all be looking for ways to trim their congressional office budgets starting Jan. 5th, when the new Republican-controlled Congress is sworn in.

That’s because the incoming House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, has said one of the first bills he’ll bring to the floor when the GOP takes power is a measure cutting congressional budgets by 5 percent.

For Connecticut’s congressional delegation, that will mean slashing at least $73,000 from their Washington and district office operations next year. They can downsize their staffs, reduce printing and postage use, or take other steps to adjust.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, will take a double hit, because he has to trim both his congressional office and his leadership office budgets. He’s preparing to make significant reductions in his staff and other expenses, and several of Larson’s top aides have already found new jobs.

Some lawmakers in the Connecticut delegation said it would be no problem to slim down, while others said it could seriously hamper their legislative and constituent operations.

Each member of the House gets a federal allowance to cover staff salaries, travel, equipment, rent for district offices, and other expenses. The amount varies for each lawmaker, depending on the cost of travel between the member’s home state to the nation’s capital, real estate prices in the district and other factors.

The 2010 member allowances for Connecticut’s delegation ranged from $1.5 million for Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, to $1.47 million for Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.

The bulk of that money goes towards paying staff. For example, DeLauro spent approximately $1 million on personnel compensation through the end of 2009, according to House disbursement statements.

She spent about $106,000 on rent, communications, and utilities. And another $35,000 went to “franked mail,” the mass mailings lawmakers send out to constituents reporting on their work in Washington.

Himes spent about $814,500 on staff salaries, $103,000 on rent and other office costs, and about $59,000 on franked mail. (Some of these totals may be incomplete, since bills often come in after the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.)

“I would be happy to tighten my belt,” said Himes. “It might impose a little bit of a work burden on members and staff. But you know, everyone else in the country is tightening their belt, so I’ve got no problem with that.”

Himes noted that in 2009, he came in well under budget. Of his $1.46 million congressional allowance for last year, he spent a little more than $1.36 million and returned about $98,700 to the U.S. Treasury.

Himes currently has eight staffers in his Washington office, including his chief of staff, three policy aides, and a legislative correspondent who helps deal with an estimated 2,000 inquiries and constituent service requests his office gets each week.

Himes has another eight full-time employees and one part-timer working in the 4th District.

“There’s no doubt that every congressional office could operate more leanly,” Himes said.

And in fact, every Connecticut lawmaker returned at least a little bit of their annual allowance to the federal kitty last year.

“We always leave ourselves some room, because the one thing you don’t want to ever do is go above” the federal stipend, said Murphy. His office returned $23,600 at the end of 2009.

Among Connecticut House members, DeLauro, a Democrat representing the 3rd District, gave back the most-more than $126,000 of the $1.46 million she was allotted.

DeLauro declined to be interviewed for this story. Kaelan Richards, her spokeswoman, said DeLauro has 19 staff members, who all work on both legislative and constituent issues.

“Congresswoman DeLauro will run her office on whatever funds are allocated, and supports measures that would increase government efficiency,” Richards said.

Others said they, too, would grin and bear the cuts. But they warned that it could seriously impact their ability to help home-district residents.

“We have a tremendously high volume of constituent case work that demands really good people and long hours,” said Rep. Joe Courtney.

He noted that with a military base in his district, Connecticut’s 2nd, he has a higher population of veterans than many others, and they often need assistance with benefit appeals and other problems.

“This could damage people’s ability to get help” from their elected officials, Courtney said.

Boehner has estimated that it will save taxpayers between $25 million to $30 million annually.

“We have to stop Washington’s out-of-control spending spree,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “We have to start somewhere, and we’re starting with Congress.”

But Courtney and others were not convinced. “From a deficit standpoint, it’s flyspeck,” said Courtney.

This year’s federal budget deficit is projected to top $1.4 trillion, and the national debt stands at more than $13 trillion.

Courtney said if Republicans really wanted to show the public that they were willing to sharing the current economic pain, they would forgo federal health coverage until all Americans had their own insurance.

The current federal subsidy for lawmakers’ health benefits is $8,000, he noted. And all members-even those with serious pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or cancer-are guaranteed full coverage.

“That, to me, is the real disconnect between Congress and constituents,” he said.

Murphy, too, dismissed the GOP’s proposal as more show than substance. “The value is really only symbolic,” he said.

The 5th District Democrat said he’s sure he can find savings in his budget, but like Courtney, he said it would take a toll.

“The reality is that congressional staffers are already vastly overworked and underpaid,” Murphy said. “So a cut in our budgets unfortunately just exacerbates an already rather large problem.”

What will he take the knife to first?

“I don’t know,” Murphy said. “And I don’t want to surprise my staff by telling you what I’m considering cutting before I talk to them.”