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Swelling city on the Hill


IN January, in the midst of the recession, George Mitchell, TC D-Maine, the Senate majority leader, declared that the American people must "do more with less. Government must do the same, to be more careful with your tax dollars."

Hollow words, indeed, in light of the growth and spending spree that has followed. The population of Congress, i.e., the number of congressional staff, has now hit 37,388 -- larger than the population of 11 state capitals.

Congress this year will employ almost 10,000 more staff members -- which includes personal staff, cooks, beauticians, travel agents and mail carriers -- than it did in 1980. Personal staff, working directly for members of Congress, has nearly tripled since 1960, from 6,791 to more than 19,000. Committee staff, meanwhile, has more than tripled, from 910 in 1960 to more than 2,800 today.

Naturally, bigger staffs mean bigger budgets. Congressional budgets for 1991 and 1992 will hit an estimated $2.5 billion and $3 billion, respectively. The latter figure translates into $5.6 million per year for each member of Congress.

Committee activities make up a large chunk of the money. The House and Senate earlier this year increased operating expenses for their 44 committees by a record $14 million -- none of which was provided for in last year's tax and budget increases.

Total expenses for congressional committees will exceed $115 million this year. In February, the Senate boosted committee budgets from $53.4 million to $55.9 million, a $2.5 million increase. In March, the House increased its annual committee budgets by $5.9 million, an 11 percent jump, bringing its total budget to $60.8 million.

Most of the congressional committees asked for budget increases significantly above the inflation rate. The Senate Banking Committee, for example, requested a 45 percent budget increase for fiscal 1992 to help cope with the savings and loan scandal. But if the banking committee's current staff of 42 failed to provide the oversight to prevent the $300 billion S&L; scandal, more money and staff won't do any better. Nevertheless, it was granted a 24 percent budget increase.

The only House committees that didn't get more money were the two that probably need it the most -- ethics and intelligence.

Although some increases in committee spending this year have been approved openly, others have been disguised by the committees. To appear to be saving taxpayer money, Congress uses an accounting gimmick that allows a roll-over of funds from a committee's previous year's budget, without putting it on the books. The effect, of course, is to pad spending beyond the already-high budget increases.

And what are taxpayer dollars accomplishing through these larger staffs and budgets? Many congressional staff members play a direct role in the re-election campaigns of senators and congressmen; they produce the massive taxpayer-funded mailings to constituents at election time.

Congressional staff also enables members of Congress to coerce the administration: They write the letters, make the phone calls and arrange the hearings. Powerful incumbents owe much of their influence to their large staffs; no wonder they want more.

Thus, Congress has become a city unto itself. With the largest legislative staff of any government in the world, it has sunk into a bloated bureaucracy that rivals anything in the Kremlin. If Congress can't resist its own self-indulgent spending sprees, it can't possibly be disciplined enough to trim federal deficits or wasteful government programs.

Luis Saenz is a research assistant working with the U.S Congress Assessment Project at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

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