Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism
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Our Costly Congress
Cost of keeping a member in Washington a year reaches $275,000 plus, even as ‘club’ raps rising federal costs
By WORTH BINGHAM
Washington, July 21. — The most stunning figure in the 1,171-page federal budget is the cost of keeping a congressman in Washington — $275,000 a year.
Ten years ago, it was less than half that sum.
Overall, Congressional costs since 1953 have risen six times as fast as the rest of the federal budget-from $60,849,479 a decade ago to $147,594,000 for the 1963 fiscal year.
These totals cover what Congress spends directly for its own convenience and operations-its operating budget, the building program on Capitol Hill, and the costs of running the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office.
But they do not include certain indirect costs, such as the millions of dollars spent by executive departments for publications congressman give to constituents free of charge, or the costs of military aircraft that are often available for Congressional trips here and abroad, or the large amounts of counterpart currency which congressmen spend when they travel overseas.
The soaring cost of keeping the Congress in the style to which it has grown accustomed is one of the paradox of American political life.
Why The Increase?
The lawmakers delight in inveighing against the high cost of government.
There are many who condemn what they call “the fiscal irresponsibility” of the executive branch. Committees are created and bills introduced to reduce “non essential federal expenditures.”
Yet Congress’s own operations have become costlier every year.
The biggest reason seems to be that ti historic safeguards which surround most federal spending are conspicuously lacking when Congress appropriates money for its own uses.
Lobbyists and special-interest groups have much to say about most federal expenditures, none about what Congress spends on itself.
The Bureau of The Budget, which is responsible for approving — and sometimes slashing — federal program has no sway over Congress’s own appropriations. The General Accounting Office, which was created by Congress to inspect the fiscal practices of the federal bureaus, agencies and departments, rubberstamps the spending procedures of its parent.
With a very few exceptions, the press has been less than critical about this type of Congressional spending.
Perhaps this is so because the press is so well taken care of on Capitol Hill.
There are soft couches in the press galleries, free telephones and typewriters, free parking spaces, and cut-rate meals at the press’s own private dining room.
It all serves to create an atmosphere of easy tolerance among the members of the Fourth Estate.
In the absence of the restraint of outside checking, the only effective curb on Congressional spending lies with Congress itself; but in making up its own budgets, Congress seems to lose its critical faculties and behaves like a privacy-loving little club.
In this setting, “club directors” meet at appropriations hearings and behind the closed doors of the Senate Rules Committee and the House Administration Committee rooms.
One unwritten rule of the “club” is that neither house will question an appropriation made by the other for itself.
An important annual event for the “club members” is the legislative hearing conducted by a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Gimlet Eye Employed
Every agency of the Government has to go through the appropriations process; and in the case of the executive branch, congressmen often bore in for justification of every cent which is proposed. Payroll cutbacks are demanded. Some congressmen go into denunciations every time the State Department requests entertainment allowances for its diplomats. Often, there are cutting remarks made about “visionaries in the executive branch who never met a payroll in their lives.”
But the legislative-branch hearings provide a distinct contrast. Much of this year’s hearing was devoted to praise for House employees who appeared to ask for more money.
House Sergeant-at-Arms Zeake Johnson came before the subcommittee to ask for $618,150 to run his office during the fiscal year.
One of his questioners was Representative Frank T. Bow (R., Ohio), an outspoken adversary of federal spending. He bombards his constituents with newsletters on the subject. (Sample: “The federal payroll takes a big bite from your tax dollar and the bite is getting bigger every month.”) Bow has introduced a bill to cut federal payroll costs by 10 percent, “simply by refusing to fill vacancies as they occur.”
On this occasion, Bow did not denounce Johnson.
“Mr. Chairman, if I may,” said Bow, “I would like to say to the sergeant at arms that I appreciate the courtesy of his office to members. I have heard many members mention the courtesy of his office and his employees, particularly in the bank and the manner in which everyone is treated.”
Bow then asked if Johnson’s bank employees’ salaries were “pretty much in line with similar work in banks downtown?”
“I would think that they are a little higher than those in commercial banks, “ replied Johnson.
“The functions of the employees in your office include a number of services to members that go over and beyond what the ordinary bank employee does,” said Representative Tom Steed (D., Okla.).
“And the hours are different, too, Mr. Johnson,” added Bow. “I think you should take a good look at the salary setup in your office. We cannot afford to lose these good men.”
The next witness was House Doorkeeper William “Fishbait” Miller, who asked for $1,058,310 to run his office. Again, there came effusive compliments.
“We know that he… performs a most valuable and varied function to the members of the house,” said Steed. “I think it would be well for our record to take note of that.”
“Let me speak, I am sure, for all the minority,” said Bow, “that we are very appreciative of the services received from Mr. Miller’s office. He is a majority employee and appointee, actually, but that does not seem to make much difference to him when it comes to being of service to those of us on the minority side.”
Miller noted that his workload increases substantially in the years “when we people in the Congress must go out and visit our constituencies to win re election.”
This led to an off-the-record discussion. After being assured that the folding room contained sufficient machines to handle the House members’ mail promptly, the leading “club” members complimented Miller again and proceeded to the next item.
Such are the minutes of a typical “club meeting.” Nevertheless, the House is a large, somewhat unwieldy body, and there are occasionally to be found non-club members who are willing to snitch about what their colleagues are doing with taxpayers’ dollars.
It is rarely so in the Senate. It is here where “clubmen” come into their own. Secrecy is a way of life in the Senate and expensive archaisms are maintained carefully.
Take the respect for traditional titles, which may be seen in the ‘The Report of The Secretary of the Senate” for fiscal 1961, the book which lists Senate employees.
Although one never hears a male voice answer a call to the Capitol switchboard, the book lists five male “telephone operators.” George Smith is listed as “wagonmaster.” John M. Price is “laborer in charge of private passage.” James A. Mullally is employed as “female attendant, ladies’ retiring room.”
The “information” operator at the Capitol Hill switchboard said that she did not know any of her five male counterparts, had no idea what their real jobs were.
She suggested calling the Senate Payroll Division to obtain the telephone operators’ telephone extensions. But an employee of the payroll office said he could not locate the five men from the records at his disposal. He suggested calling Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Joseph C. Duke, but Duke does not give information to the press about his employees.
The mother of Robert J. Conner, Jr., one of the male phone operators, said he is a doorkeeper in the Democratic cloakroom. Conner was located there, and volunteered that his title “is actually very accurate. I’m on the phone about three quarters of the time.”
Conner would not say whom he talks to on the phone, or what his other duties are.
“I have no specific duties,” he said. “When I try to describe what I do, it becomes very complex. These payroll matters are very touchy. I don’t think I’d better say anything more about it.”
David G. Gartner, another “telephone operator,” turned up in the Senate phone book as “assistant to majority whip.” Gartner said he handles agricultural legislation for the whip, Senator Hubert Humphrey. He said he had no idea why he is described as a telephone operator. Humphrey’s administrative assistant, William Connell, said he didn’t know either — “these mysteries are too deep for me to fathom.”
Couldn’t Be Found
The most recent Washington city directory lists two of the other phone operators as “doorkeeper, U.S. Senate,” but they could not be located.
George Smith, the wagonmaster, has that title in the city directory also. He works in the Senate Service Department, which does most of the Senate’s printing. A message was left for him there, but he did not return the call.
The city directory lists Mullally, the ladies’ retiring-room attendant, as “lawyer, U.S. Senate,” but he could not be located on Capitol Hill. As with the 01.”·er employees, an attempt to find out from officials what Mullally is really doing was regarded as an affront to the dignity of the Senate.
It is on the floor of both Senate and House that one sees the difference in appropriation methods. When money is appropriated for the executive branch, there is always debate — usually lengthy. The bureaucracy may get more than it needs, but in the process there are many members of Congress who rise to challenge some of the spending.
But when appropriation legislation Congress proposes for itself reaches the floor, kid-glove treatment is the custom. These bills usually are passed without any debate or comment whatsoever.
One of the few who do rise in challenge is Representative H. R. Gross (R., Iowa), who has made something of a career in asking unkind questions about Congressional limousines that do not show up in the budget, and about elevator operators employed to man automatic elevators.
Gross has complained that he cannot find out about bills coming from the House Administration Committee.
Normally, the legislative program for the following week is announced on Thursdays. Whip notices are sent out by the leadership of both parties detailing the bills to be acted upon. However, many House Administration Committee bills are brought to the House floor on the spur of the moment — by asking unanimous consent of the members on the floor.
Often, these bills bear no legislative numbers and are not reported by title. Frequently copies are not available at the desks on either side of the Speaker’s rostrum.
Last year, during such a consent process, 25 printing bills came to the floor and were passed at the rate of about one a minute.
Not until later did Gross learn that one of the “printing” bills provided for a
$5,000 entertainment fund to be used by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an additional $14,000 a year for employees to “administer” the fund.
Gross is still talking about it. “Someone’s got to ride herd on these people,” he said. “Why, you could bum the Capitol down if you had unanimous consent to do it.”
Copyright, 1962, By The Courier-Journal