Sequester forces Connecticut lawmakers to trim office budgets

Washington – Connecticut lawmakers are poring over their office budgets, forced by the sequester’s across-the-board cuts to reduce their spending by tens of thousands of dollars.

The salaries of the members of Congress are protected from the sequester’s cuts that went into effect on Friday to reduce the federal budget by $85 billion.

But the money each lawmaker receives to run an offices in Washington and home states or districts is not protected and must be cut by 8.2 percent.

Depending on regional differences and other variables, House members are given $1.2 million to $1.5 million each year to run their offices.

The “representational allowances” are used to pay salaries, rent on district offices, office supplies and dozens of other expenses related to running a congressional office — even bottled water.

The sequester’s cuts will be imposed on top of an 11.4 percent cut in House office allowances implemented in the last two years and a 6 percent reduction of Senate budgets.

“If the sequester stays in place in its current form, we will be forced to furlough employees,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, “We will be trying our best not to impact office operations and constituent services as we deal with the impact of these cuts.”

Josh Zembik, press secretary to Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the lawmaker is still waiting for final guidance on how the sequester will affect his “bottom line.”

But Zembik said Courtney’s office would try to safeguard services provided to constituents.

“Our focus is on ensuring that critical casework assistance we provide to eastern Connecticut seniors, veterans and small businesses will be uninterrupted,” Zembik said.

For Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the pain of having to cut her office budget parallels the hurt the sequester causes federal programs and agencies.

“We are going through the office budget line-by-line to cut expenses and make the same types of tough budget choices as the rest of the federal government,” DeLauro said. “With our small budget, the decisions we will have to make are a reflection of how small cuts everywhere will hurt the economy. We buy less, pay less and hire less.”

For Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., being brand new to the Senate — he was sworn in in January — may be a blessing of sorts.

“We’re still in the process of staffing our offices both in Connecticut and Washington, so we’re still going through our budget,” said Ben Marter, Murphy’s communication director.

Freshman Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, also said she’s going through her budget.

A Congressional Management Foundation report released last year said a 5 percent reduction to House office salaries in 2011 was “manageable.” But the CMF said the second round of cuts, in the amount of 6.4 percent, that were imposed last year would cause problems in the operation of lawmakers’ offices.

The CMF has not weighed in on the latest congressional office budget cuts. But its report on last year’s cuts, based on interviews with House chiefs of staff and office managers, found lawmakers planned to use a wide variety of strategies to cope.

They included freezing pay and eliminating bonuses, cancelling town halls and other district events and eliminating mailing to constituents who are 54 years old or younger, reaching out to them through emails instead.