With little fanfare and much sacrifice, a small entity within the federal government has made significant cuts to its own budget. The cuts have required an already underpaid and overtaxed workforce to develop creative solutions to continue to deliver high-quality services to key stakeholders with even fewer resources. The mainstream media has largely ignored this unprecedented budgetary reduction, and the federal entity's leaders have foregone even a modicum of self-congratulation for the effort, while the employees have been nearly universally silent on the impact. This workforce is the U.S. Congress.
In the past three years, Congress has cut budgets for member offices by 20 percent. For most House offices, this has meant losing at least one of their 16 (on average) staff members and shifting responsibilities to others. A fall 2013 Congressional Management Foundation survey of senior congressional managers showed 82 percent of respondents felt salary freezes would contribute to staff leaving their offices. One senior manager noted, "Reductions in D.C. and District staff as a result of budget cuts have shifted the workload to remaining staff. The challenges are ensuring that work has been equitably distributed, that staff morale remains high, and that quality of work is not sacrificed."
This 20 percent budget cut to members' personal offices is significantly more than any other agency in the legislative or executive branch has faced, and it has had a tangible impact.
A Washington Post article from Dec. 28, on the challenges Congress faces in trimming the overall federal budget noted that executive branch agencies have "cut" their budgets using "budget gimmicks, which cut money on paper but made little difference in the real world."
But in House offices, a $250,000 cut to a $1.4 million budget isn't a gimmick. It means fewer constituents get help finding lost Social Security checks. Fewer citizens see a legislator's voting record because of fewer congressional mailings, and the legislative branch gets a little less quality of service when the staffer with two decades of experience decides to go to K Street because she hasn't seen a raise in four years.
This notion of budget cuts flies in the face of public perception of the federal government. Public polling shows a widespread belief in the bloat of a governmental bureaucracy in Washington. When I mention to people outside the Beltway that Congress has cut its budget by 20 percent, the predominant response is, "I didn’t know that!"
Most Americans don't know that House personal office staff size has been frozen since 1974. To put this in perspective, the last time the House got an increase in full-time staff, Gerald Ford was president, gasoline cost 55 cents a gallon and 90 percent of the congressional workforce wasn't even born yet.
These budget cuts might have some degree of symbolic value if Americans actually knew about them. Mainstream news coverage shows just a smattering of references to congressional budget cuts. Disturbingly, a review of members' own press releases show nary a reference to the budget cuts imposed on their own offices. The value of a "symbolic" gesture is that somebody recognizes the symbolism. Said another way, if the congressional budget tree falls in a forest, and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a difference?
The Congressional Management Foundation recognizes that Congress cannot ask Americans to sacrifice without making commensurate sacrifices themselves. But as the respective Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittees consider the 2015 budgets for member offices, consider the comment of a House staffer in response to the CMF survey: "Working in Congress is a way for me to serve my country. Congress needs smart and principled individuals who are willing to sacrifice some part of their lives ... to make our country work better, and I'm proud to be a part of that."
If Congress continues on a course of continual cutbacks, how long do you think it can retain that kind of public servant?
Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer. This column was originally published in Roll Call on February 11, 2014: http://www.rollcall.com/news/budget_cuts_to_congress_are_real_not_gimmicks_commentary-230813-1.html