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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 7, 2011

GOP's first Promise Kept: Cut congressional budget

In their Pledge to America, House Republican leaders promised to "make Congress do more with less by significantly reducing its budget." On Jan. 6, 2011, they took action.

By an overwhelming 410-13 vote, House members approved a binding resolution that would cut the operating budget of member and committee offices by 5 percent, or about $35 million annually.

According to the office of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the resolution prohibits any congressional office from spending more than 95 percent of what they were allowed to spend last year. If an office requests more money than that, the House's Chief Administrative Officer will be directed to disallow the request.

The 5 percent cut will be effective immediately, and when the new appropriations bill to fund the legislative branch going forward is passed later this year, the 5 percent cut will be written into the bill. The most recent spending bill provided $660 million for fiscal year 2010, and the appropriations this year have been based on that number.

"In the short term, the money simply won"t leave the treasury," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. "In the medium term, when we take up new spending bills this spring, we"ll request less money for House operations."

In judging the progress on this promise, we had two key questions.

First, does 5 percent qualify as "significantly" cutting the congressional budget? In the context of the House's budget, it doesn't strike us as a trivial amount, so we think it passes that test.

And second, does the resolution qualify as making Congress "do more with less," even though the resolution only directly affects spending in the House? This one requires a bit of background on the rather byzantine topic of legislative branch spending bills.

Independent experts confirmed to us that, unlike most substantive congressional bills, no further action by the Senate or the president is required to make the cuts a reality. Because the legislative chambers have historically given each other wide berth to run their own affairs, the House will be able to enforce the resolution without the Senate or the president weighing in.

"The legislative branch appropriations process offers significant latitude to the speaker to set funding levels," said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which advises lawmakers on best practices for running their offices. "Basically, the House and Senate say to each other, 'You figure out what you want on your own,' within a limit for the overall amount apportioned to Congress."

We considered adopting the stance that a Promise Kept rating could only be granted once the Senate cut its budget similarly, which would be far from guaranteed since the Senate is under Democratic control. But two reasons have persuaded us that House Republicans have kept their promise. We think it is reasonable to infer from the context that House leaders were referring to their own chamber. And their action, while still limited to one chamber, does meet their stated goal of making "Congress do more with less by significantly reducing its budget," just as the promise stated. So we rate it a Promise Kept.

Our Sources

Text of spending resolution, Jan. 6, 2011

Roll call vote on spending resolution, Jan. 6, 2011

Congressional Quarterly, "House Agrees to Trim Operating Budget," Jan. 6, 2011 (subscribers only)

Interview with Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former House Rules Committee aide, Jan. 6, 2011

Interview with Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, Jan. 6, 2011

Interview with Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, Jan. 6, 2011

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