Last week, in response to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s suggestion that we increase Members’ staff and office budgets, I wrote a primer on how the Member’s Representational Allowance works in the House. Today, my goal is to offer the companion primer, on how committee funding works in the House. I’ll do it Q&A style, since it’s a bit complicated. (As with the MRA, I will focus on the House; the Senate process is slightly different, but operates on the same principles.) For background, you might want to start with my post on the basic staffing structure in the legislative branch if you are totally unfamiliar with the terrain.
Q. How do House committees get money to pay for staff?
A. More or less the same way as Members do in their personal office: appropriations made under law in the Legislative Branch Appropriations, paired with authorizations that provide spending limits.
Q. So the Committee on House Administration Committee sets the spending limits?
A. Not exactly. They have jurisdiction over the policy area, but under Rule X, clause 6 of the Rules of the House of Representatives, the House Administration Committee reports a “primary expense resolution” to the floor that authorizes the expenses for each standing and select committee in the House (except for Appropriations). The resolution is then passed (or not) by the chamber on the floor. For instance, in the 112th Congress, the House Administration Committee report H.Res.147 to the floor, which was agreed to on March 17, 2011. Under Rule X, they are also required to submit a committee report (in this case, H.Rpt. 112-130) detailing the total funding and other information.
Q. Why doesn’t the Appropriations Committee get an authorization?
A. Under the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, the House Appropriations Committee is authorized to appropriate its own funds, separate from the funds for the other standing committees. So while the rest of the standing committees draw their funding from a single Treasury account (and therefore need individual limits on how much they can draw), the appropriations committee has its own Treasury account. From a practical politics point of view, it’s a reminder of the power of the Appropriations Committee; they need not submit to a funding process that puts their own funding in someone else’s control.
Q. Wait, the individual committees don’t have their own Treasury accounts?
A. Nope. And this is one of the most common misconceptions about how funding works in the Legislative Branch. Just as individual Members do not have separate Treasury account for their MRAs, neither do the standings committees. Instead, the appropriation for House committees is in two pieces in the Legislative Branch Act — one lump of money for all the committees except Appropriations, and a separate account for Appropriations. This is part of the reason that the House Administration Committee needs to report, and the House needs to agree to, authorized limits each committee; everyone is pulling their money out of the same general account.
Q. How much is appropriated?
A. In FY2012, just under $126 million for all the committees except for Appropriations, and $26.6 million for the Appropriations Committee.
Q. Wait, the appropriation is for a fiscal year? I thought you said the authorization was agreed to in March?
A. It was. There are two totally different timelines here. The funding for the committees is appropriated — as like most federal appropriations — annually on the October 1 – September 30 calendar. The authorizations, however, are for calendar years (actually session-years, January 3 to January 2).
Q. I don’t get it?
A. Don’t worry, it’s confusing. Think of it this way: there’s a big garbage full of money. Every year we have to refill it with more money, because on October 1st, we can no longer use the money that’s in there. So we agree on how much to refill it with on October 1. Meanwhile, we want to let 20 different people take money out of the bag when they need it. So we set a limit for how much each of them can take out in any given year. That the limit we put on them runs on a different calendar than the the scheduled refilling of the bag doesn’t actually matter, so long as we keep refilling the bag and makes sure the limits we set for the 20 people don’t exceed the amount in the bag. That those people end up taking out money from two different fiscal years on one limit doesn’t make a difference. It’s the same bag.
Q. Why don’t we just authorize limits for fiscal years?
A. Because then the 2nd year’s authorizations in any Congress would run through the following Congress’s first session. And that’s not efficient because if there’s a change in power, there might be a desire for a substantial change in the allocation of funding across committees. It makes the most sense to authorize committee funds for each session, because that way, you know the priorities of the majority and they are (relatively) stable.
Q. But you said they do this in March?
A. Yup. The trade-off for having the authorizations not run across two different Congresses is that you can’t get the authorizations done for the first session prior to that session getting underway. It takes some time for the committees to develop their budgets, for the House Administration Committee to sort out how much money it has and where it should go, and for the primary expense resolution to be agreed to on the House floor.
Q. So how do committees pay for anything between January 3 and March?
A.Remember, it’s not an issue of the money not being appropriated. That runs on a fiscal year basis, so the bag is full of useable funds. The issue is that there’s no authorization at the outset of a Congress. So House Rules X, clause 7 provides for interim funding authorizations: the committees can spend up to 9 percent of their total 2-year authorization from the previous Congress. Any spending is then charged against their eventual 1st session authorization after the primary expense resolution is agreed to.
Q. Today is March 19. I follow congressional news. Why am I not hearing about this right now?
A. Because the contemporary process is for the primary expense resolution to be biennial, meaning that in March of the 1st session of a Congress, committee funding authorizations are provided for both the 1st and 2nd session of the Congress. Each committee is given a total authorization, as well as sub-authorizations for each session.
Q. Do they ever adjust the numbers later on within a Congress?
A. Sure. They did this year. H.Res. 496 reduced 2nd session funding for all standing committees (aside from House Appropriations).
Q. What’s the formula for determining how much each committee gets?
A. Unlike the MRA, there’s no neutral formula for determining committee funding. Instead, each committee develops its own budget request, which it submits to House Administration. Often, these requests are formalized into legislative resolution that are introduced in the House (see, for example, H.Res.107, which is the funding request for the Education Committee in the 112th Congress). House Administration then holds hearings prior to developing the primary expense resolution. Typically at these hearing, the chair and ranking member of each committee testify as to their budget request.
Q. Wait, Members of Congress testify at the hearing of another committee?
A. Yup. It’s one of the few places where that happens routinely (the other is, of course, at the Rules Committee when Members must testify on behalf of amendments they would like included in a special rule).
Q. What determines how much each committee gets?
A. At one level, it’s just politics. There’s a certain amount of money, each committee tries to justify how much they need within the context of how much is available via the appropriation. Lots of things come into play: the priorities of the House Administration Committee, the priorities of the majority leadership, the priorities of the majority caucus, the priorities of the chamber, the input of the appropriators, and so forth. There’s a certain level of professionalization to it as well — it would be very unusual to see, say, half the committees get a 20% increase over last year and half of them get a 20% decrease. The point being that’s there’s a certain amount of distributional comity. Nevertheless, the priorities of the majority party certainly matter. If some committees are clearly going to be busy, they will usually see more funding.
Q. What do committees spend the money on?
A. Mostly staff. As with the MRA, the funding for committees pays for more or less all expenses: staff, consulting services, office expenses, and travel. Unlike Members, or course, the committees do not have district offices and typically do not send very much franked mail.
Q. Who decides on how to spend committee funds?
A. Technically, the chairman has total control over the budget. Under the House Rules, committee funds are spent on vouchers signed by the chairman.
Q. Does the minority get any funds?
A. Yes. Well, sort of. There is a long-standing debate in the House over how the staff and resource funding should be divided for the committees. Currently, the Committee on House Administration promotes the idea that the minority should get 1/3 of the funding, and they look fondly upon committees that present that as their arrangement in the funding hearings. There is relatively widespread consensus that this should be the policy for staff funding, and it is something of a weak norm. (It should be noted, however, that the Chairmen still control and are still responsible for the entire budget). So most committees follow that norm. There are, however, occasional squabbles over whether non-staff resources should also be divided 2/3 and 1/3. Many, if not most, committees now follow the 2/3 and 1/3 distribution for all committee funds.
Q. So how many staffers work for the committees?
A. About 1500 right now. That’s down from from a high of about 2200 in the early 90′s. Below is a chart of House leadership and House Committee staffing levels, from 1982 to 2010, scaled on separate axes. The dotted line is committee staff. Note the large drop in 1995, when committee staff was cut across the board by 1/3. During this time period, committee staff decreased roughly 18%. Over the same period, Member personal staff increased by 6%, and core leadership staff increased by 233%.
Q. What do the staffers do?
A. Well, whatever the committee wants them to do. Mostly that falls into the nebulous world of policy analysis, policy creation, and policy oversight: evaluating existing laws and bills to change them, developing original legislation to change law, and conducting oversight of existing policy, usually in response to the priorities of the full committee and sub-committee chairmen.
Q. Yeah, but what do the staffers actually do?
A. Mostly four things. First, listening and negotiating with the stakeholders and policymakers who are seeking to alter current law. This can be everything from the chairman (often) to other Members (both on the committee and off), to stakeholders both inside and outside the government, public and private. Second, preparing legislative proposals in response to the concerns of these stakeholders, by actually drafting potential language. Third, preparing hearings and committee markups on the legislation, which runs the complete range from choosing witnesses and preparing questions, all the way down to physically assembling briefing books for the Members. Fourth, conducting oversight of existing policy, which can range from phone calls to stakeholders to oversight hearings of executive branch officials.
Q. Are committee staff paid similarly to Member offices staff?
A. Broadly speaking, yes. Committees have staff assistants who make very little money and they have senior professional staffers who often make the maximum committee staff salary under the Speaker’s Pay Order, which outlines several tiers of maximum pay for various number of individuals, all tiers being in the $160-170k range. It’s hard to generalize, but the committee system tends to have, on average, better paid staff, typically because they come to the job with more experience or education, and tend to stay in the job longer, in comparison to Member office staff.
Q. Do we need more committee staffers?
A. Completely depends on who you ask. And ultimately, like the MRA, it depends on your axiomatic values. There are really three concerns. First, are more or less committee staffers optimal on an absolute level? That is, would a different number of committee staff help offset the reliance of Members on information sources like lobbyists. Second, are more or less committee staffers optimal on a relative level, either in reference to the executive branch or in reference to other legislative branch entities, such as the leadership or the Member personal offices. Like lobbyists, both the President and the leadership can use their vast resources to produce and disseminate information as a political weapon. Whether you believe a better balance needs to exist will largely inform your opinion about committee staffing.
Of course, staffing also needs to be properly matched to authority. If you don’t believe in a strong committee system — that is, if you would prefer a greater centralization of policy-making power in the House — then it hardly would make sense to want to increase committee staff. And vice-versa. There’s some evidence that the committee system simply isn’t being used for the same purposes as it was a generation ago; the overall number of hearings and markups is down, and a higher percentage of major policy seems to be coming directly from the leaderhsip. That’s neither inherently good or bad, but it does, again, inform the question of committee staff. There’s not a lot of reason to beef up a congressional sub-institution with resources, if it’s formal and informal authority is purposefully being waned.\
Q. Aside from the separate funding stream, is the Appropriations Committee different?
A. Very much so. One really important difference is that there’s no flurry of bills coming at the Appropriations Committee, and very few surprises in their agenda. On a typical committee, you never really know what is coming next; not only do current events play a role in the agenda, but the legislative priorities of various Members and the leadership also dictate things. On Appropriations, each subcommittee more or less has one bill that they deal with every year, and they more or less know what is in it and what the calendar looks like for consideration of it. Yes, there are supplementals and other non-routine items, but the basic budget calendar (budget justification hearings starting in late winter; bill and report production in the Spring; markup in the late Spring; floor consideration in the summer; and oversight year-round) makes for a rhythm that is more regular than other committees.
Previous “Q&A” style posts
March 16, 2012 — Increase the MRA in the House?
March 5, 2012 — Democratic Appropriations Subcommittee Assignment in the House.
March 2, 2012 — Filling the tree in the Senate.
December 15, 2011 — Rule Layover Waivers in the House.
December 5, 2011 — How a bill becomes a law. Literally.
November 29, 2011 — The other caucuses. The ones in Congress.