Congress' gravy train


I THINK our country sinks beneath the yoke. It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash is added to her wounds . . ."

Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., echoing Malcolm's words in "Macbeth" earlier this year from the Senate floor, recited a litany of economic woes -- unemployment at 7.1 percent, 8.9 million Americans out of work, one of 10 Americans on food stamps, business bankruptcies topping 73,000 and personal bankruptcies at 920,000 for 1991. Although lamenting the suffering inflicted by the recession, the president pro tempore of the Senate is seeing to it that for some, at least, the recession's yoke is easy, and its burden light: Mr. Byrd got a 35 percent increase in his office budget, bringing it to $419,000 for 1992. His budget has more than doubled since 1989, when it stood at $156,000.

With funding proposals for various congressional committees due to come up soon, it's time to look into how congressional offices have fared during the recession.

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is a good friend to have in tough times. He requested an 11 percent increase for his committee this year -- a half-a-million dollar jump. At about the same time, he preached the value of a $400 annual tax break, included in his committee's tax bill: "It will help make a car payment, or buy a month's groceries, or a new washing machine, or pay on a student loan. These things are not trivial at all to middle-class working people who are being squeezed." Ironically, the budget increase requested for his committee alone could give 1,341 working families the $400 dollar boon offered by the House tax package he created, without the tax increases his tax bill contains.

Overall, the House has weathered the economic storm well. Operating costs for the House of Representatives now total more than $700 million per year (not including overdrafts), with overall House spending ballooning 9.5 percent since last year.

Budgets for House leadership offices -- on both sides of the political aisle -- grew by an average of 10 percent. The office of Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., rose by $72,000; Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, D-Wash., saw his budget soar by 30 percent, to nearly $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the office of the sergeant at arms, directly responsible for the House bank, received a 7.3 percent increase; the office of the postmaster, which oversees the House Post Office now under investigation for embezzlement and drug-dealing, saw its budget increase by more than 33 percent.

The Senate isn't exactly limping through the recession either. While the stagnant economy grew a meager 3 percent last year, the budget for salaries for Senate employees shot up 16 percent, from just over $60 million to nearly $70 million. The offices of the Senate majority and minority leaders grew 15 percent each, from $1.7 million to more than $2 million. The Senate expense account got an 8.8 percent boost of $15 million, and the office of the legislative counsel of the Senate expanded over 18 percent.

These examples are a fraction of the increases the Congress routinely grants itself, fair economic weather or foul. They have caused the congressional budget to quintuple since 1970.

One of the few committees to experience an actual budget cut in the House last year was the Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, or "Ethics Committee," which is investigating the House banking scandal. The Ethics Committee's budget was cut 20 percent last year, from $500,000 in 1990 to $400,000, and will receive no increase this year. No need, I suppose, to investigate something in such short supply in the Congress.

While bemoaning the hardships of the recession publicly, Congress continues to prosper privately. Vows to reduce wasteful spending can hardly be taken seriously while the congressional gravy train continues full steam ahead.

Public pressure has begun to curb some of the customary congressional largess, causing staff furloughs in at least one House committee. But only continued public pressure can force House committees to make the tough choices needed to trim spending.

Steven Schwalm is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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