WASHINGTON — Even as they press cuts to food stamps and a host of other domestic programs, Republicans running the House of Representatives are shielding their own office expense accounts from further cuts.
In draft legislation supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the House Appropriations Committee would instead freeze the $574 million budget for lawmakers' staff, travel and office expenses.
The spending freeze announced Thursday comes as Republicans are rewriting last summer's budget accord to press cuts to non-defense agency budgets by about 5 percent on average. The overall $3.3 billion Capitol Hill funding bill would absorb a 1 percent cut that comes from cutting back the budget for repairing the iconic Capitol dome, which dates to the Civil War.
"I'd prefer the dome remain a monument to our nation's greatness and not become a symbol for short-sighted austerity," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
Congress' approval rating rose to 17 percent in a Gallup poll last month, up from a record low 10 percent approval rating in February.
An Appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to approve the measure Friday before lawmakers exit Washington for a week-long vacation.
In two earlier rounds of appropriations bills for 2011 and 2012, Republicans imposed a 10.5 percent budget cut on the House. Their office budgets – officially called the "members' representational allowance" – have been cut by a total of 13 percent from the record $660 million approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress for 2010.
"The nation's budget challenges are far from over, and Congress must continue to lead by example and hold the reins on spending wherever possible, including in our own Capitol complex," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "At the same time, we must maintain the efficacy of the people's House, and ensure the safety and security of the thousands of people who work in and visit our historic buildings every day. This bill balances both of these needs."
In March, the House passed a budget plan that would force non-defense cuts of $27 billion below levels agreed to in the budget and debt pact forged by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Since then, Rogers has revealed plans that generally shield some Cabinet departments – like Justice and Homeland Security – from the cuts, while the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Housing and Urban Development will bear a much larger share.
In implementing the GOP budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Republicans earlier this month passed legislation cutting food stamps, pension benefits for federal workers, health care and social services programs like Meals on Wheels for the elderly.
"For the most part ... this bill has been protected from Ryan budget austerity," Dicks said in a statement.
Office budgets for members of Congress vary somewhat depending on how far they live from Washington and how expensive it is to rent office space back home. The average office budget is $1.4 million a year, according to the Congressional Research Service, but not every lawmaker spends that much. Staff salaries account for about 70 percent, on average.