House Republicans on Thursday proposed slashing the budget for Congress itself, continuing a process that critics are likening to a self-inflicted lobotomy.
The 6.4 percent budget cut that leaders of the House Appropriations Committee intend for the legislative branch next year would require significant reductions in pay and staff for congressional offices, as well as for the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office.
The inevitable result of the budget cuts will be even greater turnover among congressional staffers, said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing government transparency.
"You have the people who are the most capable, well connected and able to push Congress's work forward leaving Congress, and instead of working for the public interest, they're working for special interests," he said.
"We're dumb on purpose," said Lorelei Kelly, director of the nonprofit New Strategic Security Initiative and a chronicler of the demise of congressional brain power. Ever since the 1994 Contract with America, Republicans have wanted to defund the legislative branch, she said. She calls it the "lobotomy of Congress."
And that, she said, serves the powerful private interests who can afford lobbyists and the conservative ideological interests who are particularly active at funding think tanks.
"Knowledge is no longer as much of a public interest as it is a weapon or a commodity," Kelly said.
Indeed, while think-tank spending isn't measured, private lobbying spending hit an all-time high of $3.5 billion last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' opensecrets.org website. That's just a touch less than the entire congressional budget for fiscal year 2011, which includes such things as staff, utilities and security. It's a safe bet that lobbying spending will easily surpass congressional spending in the coming year.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a statement before a markup hearing Thursday that the 6.4 percent cut -- on top of a 2.8 percent cut last year -- "demonstrates our continued commitment to getting the nation's fiscal house in order and sharing in the sacrifices that this will require. "
President Obama had requested a small increase in the legislative budget, but Democrats are hardly putting up a fight. Appropriations Committee ranking Democrat Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) put out a statement on Wednesday declaring: "Obviously in this difficult budget year we all recognize the imperative to demonstrate that Congress is making every effort to achieve savings wherever possible, and thus we understand the need for reductions in the bill that funds the operations of the House, the Senate and the Capitol complex."
And Obama, meanwhile, has been doing his part to put the squeeze on executive branch workers. Back in November, well before any negotiations had begun in earnest on cutting the budget, Obama unilaterally froze the salaries of federal employees for two years.
Congressional offices have shrunk over time, with a larger proportion of them doing constituent relations rather than policy work, Schuman said. And low pay has its own special hazards in Washington, Schuman said. "It creates a great incentive for people to think about their next job," he said.
Schuman said his research recently found congressional staffers are seriously underpaid already.
"It doesn't matter how civic minded they are," he said, "there comes a point in people's life when low pay and long hours isn't enough."
With many of the sharpest staffers in town selling out, Kelly raised this question: "Who's working for the common good?"
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