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How House Operating Budget Cuts are Paving the Way for More Special Interest Influence

This story was originally published on Sunlight Foundation’s website on Jan. 17, 2012.

When the House returns to work today, it will be a slightly leaner, slightly less technologically cutting-edge body than it was a year ago.

Last January, the House voted 410-13 to slash its operating budget by 5% (or $35 million). A Sunlight Foundation analysis of House disbursement data shows some immediate effects: a loss almost 1,000 salaried staff positions and major cutbacks in computers and office supplies.

House offices will have to do it all over again this year. The 2012 Legislative Branch Appropriations Act cuts funding for the House by another 6.4%. Since compensation accounts for more than half of all House expenditures, expect cuts in both staff and salaries.

These cuts are part of a longer-term decline in congressional staffing and personnel spending. Already, congressional salaries and benefits lag behind their private sector competitors, meaning that offices often have a hard time retaining and attracting top talent. Instead, they must rely increasingly on special interests to help them to do their work. As Congress continues to curtail its own capacity, there is good reason to expect even greater reliance on the 12,242 registered lobbyists in Washington.

To see how the budget cuts have affected House offices so far, we compared House disbursement data for the third quarters of 2009, 2010 and 2011. Here are some key changes since 2009:

  • Overall, House offices have cut the number of salaried staff positions by 7.4%, shedding 948 between 2009 and 2011. (This includes both legislative and non-legislative positions.)
  • Overall spending on total personnel compensation is down 1.7%. (In the private sector, total compensation has increased by 4.1% during this same period.)
  • Offices have cut spending most steeply on office supplies (down 30.7%), equipment (down 46.4%, particularly computers, which are down 62.5%) and franked mail (down 25.8%).
  • One area of growth, however, is in public relations. House offices added 32 new “Communications Director” positions between 2009 and 2011.

In 2011, offices did the relatively easy stuff: skimping on office supplies and new computers, and letting some staff go. That leaves the harder stuff: more serious cutting of salaries and staff.

According to a Congressional Management Foundation survey, “the consensus is that the cumulative two-year cut of 11.4% will require the large majority of offices to make painful cuts that will be felt by virtually all staff.”

This will have consequences. With each cut to salary and staff, and each reduction in office resource budgets, it becomes that much more challenging for the House to do its job. As staff struggle with declining resources and scramble to work harder to compensate for lost positions, they become that much more dependent on outside lobbyists to help them.

Table 1. Changes in aggregate House expenditures (arranged by 2009 expenditure size)

Expense Category 2009-to-2011 change 2009 (3rd quarter) 2010 (3rd quarter) 2011 (3rd quarter)
PERSONNEL COMPENSATION -1.7% $175,130,327 $178,841,894 $172,070,988
PERSONNEL BENEFITS +5.8 $64,285,035 $66,060,868 $68,020,505
OTHER SERVICES -3.4% $22,620,349 $25,185,966 $21,847,980
EQUIPMENT -46.4% $21,007,024 $16,974,756 $11,257,324
RENT, COMMUNICATION, UTILITIES -4.5% $19,727,104 $21,767,994 $18,846,353
SUPPLIES AND MATERIALS -30.3% $7,931,749 $7,350,006 $5,526,529
TRAVEL -11.3% $7,588,514 $8,250,876 $6,732,969
FRANKED MAIL -25.8% $6,014,439 $11,960,012 $4,463,841
PRINTING AND REPRODUCTION -7.5% $5,336,864 $12,134,250 $4,937,813
TRANSPORTATION OF THINGS +11.6% $64,978 $62,646 $72,487
ALL COSTS -4.8% $329,708,391 $348,591,278 $313,778,802

Staff Reductions in Force

Breaking down the salaries by title, we can see where on the totem pole offices are cutting. Among the 20 unique position titles that account for the most combined expenses, “staff assistants” suffered most significant reduction, a loss of more than 200 positions, from 1,245 to 1,038 (down 16.6%). The number of “professional staff member” positions also declined at almost the same rate, from 205 to 176 between 2009 and 2011, down 14.1%. “Part Time Employees” are also down substantially, from 506 to 427 (down 15.6%).

On the side of growth, the fastest growing position in the House is “Communications Director.” Despite the cuts, the House actually added 32 new communications directors between third quarter of 2009 and third quarter of 2011, going from 232 to 264 positions (an increase of 13.8%). It is, however, worth noting that the number of press secretaries decreased at the same time by 12 (down 6.6%, from 183 to 171 positions), so some of the new communications directors may be press secretaries who got a new title.

Other big increases were in the position of “Scheduler” (up 12.6%, from 143 to 161 positions), “District Director” (up 8.2%, from 291 to 315 positions) and “Legislative Director” (up 7.4%, from 309 to 332 positions). Interestingly, the number of “Constituent Services Representatives” is up 6.8% (from 205 to 219) while the number of “Caseworkers” is down 5.5% (from 307 to 290).

Table 2. Changes in staffing force, by position (for 20 most expensive positions by total expenditures, arranged from biggest decline to biggest gain)

Position 2009-to-2011 change 2009 (3rd quarter) 2010 (3rd quarter) 2011 (3rd quarter)
ALL POSITIONS -7.4% 12,779 12,735 11,831
Staff Assistant -16.6% 1245 1148 1038
Part-time Employee -15.6% 506 520 427
Professional Staff Member -14.1% 205 213 176
Legislative Assistant -7.1% 793 783 737
Press Secretary -6.6% 183 181 171
Caseworker -5.5% 307 310 290
Legislative Correspondent -4.7% 380 374 362
Counsel -2.6% 117 119 114
District Representative 0.0% 197 208 197
Field Representative +0.4% 266 272 267
Executive Assistant +0.6% 154 156 155
Chief of Staff +0.7% 420 396 423
Deputy Chief of Staff +2.0% 98 95 100
Shared Employee +6.1% 588 621 624
Constituent Services Representative +6.8% 205 207 219
Senior Legislative Assistant +7.1% 140 144 150
Legislative Director +7.4% 309 337 332
District Director +8.2% 291 293 315
Scheduler +12.6% 143 137 161
Communications Director +13.8% 232 247 264

Staff Pay

For those who managed to keep their jobs on the Hill, the average salary actually increased by 3.7% since 2009.

Chiefs of staff are doing quite well. Their average compensation rose 5.8%, from $120,276 to $127,280 a year (estimated from third quarter compensation), topped only by individuals in the somewhat ambiguous role of “special assistant,” who have seen their compensation rise by 8.5% during this period (from $42,464 a year to $46,084 a year).

Major positions where the average salary declined more than five percent are “Counsel” (down 5.8%), “Deputy District Director” (down 5.7%), and “Legislative Correspondent” (down 5.4%).

Where salaries declined, it may likely be as a result of new, less experienced staffers who will work for less replacing older, more experienced staffers who commanded more money.

Table 3.Changes in salary, by position (for 20 most expensive positions by total expenditures, arranged from biggest decline to biggest gain)

Position 2009-to-2011 change 2009 (3rd quarter) 2010 (3rd quarter) 2011 (3rd quarter)
ALL POSITIONS +3.7% $13,507 $13,860 $14,002
Counsel -5.8% $23,283 $24,068 $21,928
Legislative Correspondent -5.4% $7,870 $7,914 $7,442
Senior Legislative Assistant -4.1% $14,083 $13,452 $13,504
Professional Staff Member -3.9% $21,455 $21,531 $20,611
District Representative -2.9% $11,099 $10,908 $10,781
Legislative Assistant -1.5% $10,889 $11,004 $10,722
Constituent Services Representative -1.5% $9,714 $10,128 $9,569
Field Representative -1.4% $10,035 $10,396 $9,895
Scheduler -1.2% $10,320 $10,800 $10,194
District Director -0.1% $21,087 $21,751 $21,058
Staff Assistant +0.1% $8,574 $8,878 $8,580
Legislative Director +0.6% $18,066 $18,196 $18,177
Press Secretary +0.6% $13,219 $13,084 $13,304
Communications Director +1.4% $15,962 $16,746 $16,192
Caseworker +1.4% $10,225 $10,630 $10,364
Executive Assistant +1.7% $13,279 $13,472 $13,502
Deputy Chief of Staff +2.0% $22,270 $23,744 $22,715
Part-time Employee +2.3% $5,135 $5,330 $5,251
Shared Employee +3.1% $3,829 $4,260 $3,946
Chief of Staff +5.8% $30,069 $31,061 $31,82

It is worth noting, however, that personnel benefits were up 5.8% between 2009 and 2011, from $64 million to $68 million. Most of the growth there, however, is in health insurance costs (up 12%) and retirement costs (up 4%). These are costs that congressional offices typically have less control over.

Supplies and Equipment

The biggest cuts came from spending on equipment (down 46.4%), supplies (down 30.3%) and franked mail (down 25.8%). The decrease in spending on franked mail is probably not cause for concern. Members are using more and more e-mail and social networking to reach out to constituents anyway.

More than half of the equipment budget goes to computers, and this is where offices have really skimped. The computer budget is down 62.5% from 2009, from $14.1 million to $5.3 million. At a time when so much work is conducted electronically, increasingly out-of-date equipment will put staff at an ever-increasing disadvantage.

In the category of “supplies and materials,” the top three expenses are office supplies, medical supplies and publications and reference materials. Office supply budgets are down 20% (from $6.5 million to $5.3 million), publication and reference material budgets are down 25% (from $2.2 million to $1.7 million). Medical supplies are down slightly (from $2.8 million to $2.7 million).

Table 4.Changes in expenditures on equipment and supplies and materials, major categories

Expense Category 2009-to-2011 change 2009 (3rd quarter) 2010 (3rd quarter) 2011 (3rd quarter)
Computers -62.5% $14,112,169 $8,341,676 $5,297,438
Office Supplies -19.9% $6,526,360 $8,500,553 $5,229,226
Medical Supplies -2.5% $2,796,013 $2,823,205 $2,726,987
Publications and Reference Materials -25.3% $2,245,468 $2,049,677 $1,676,573

While these may be reasonable areas to cut, these reductions are not necessarily sustainable. At some point, House staffers are going to need new computers and some office supplies. Yet with more cuts still ahead, it’s unclear where the money will come from.

Most offices could weather a lean year on supplies and equipment. But as anybody who has worked on the Hill knows, offices are far from luxurious. In a world in which more and more activity is conducted electronically, to fall behind technologically puts congressional staff behind the curve. Furthermore, with another round of cuts coming, it’s going to be hard for the House to catch up.

Now House offices have to cut another 6.4%. That will likely mean fewer staff, less support, probably lower salaries and more outmoded technology. Congress will likely be forced to rely more on interns, and almost certainly more on lobbyists.

A Note on the Data

Our data come from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. That means we are dependent on what the House reports. The biggest challenge in aggregating the data is that different House offices classify expenses in different ways. This is most obvious with job titles. Even when we standardized the title names by collapsing all synonymous abbreviations, we still wound up with 2,600 unique position titles over the three years. Though we are confident that our data captures the larger patterns, we must in good faith disclose that the underlying data are messy. At best, the data reveal general trends, and higher levels of confidence in it can only come when the House of Representatives makes a better effort with respect to how it normalizes and releases the data to the public. To dig through the data yourself, visit our House Expenditure Reports Database.

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