Congress

Legislative Branch spending bill opens door for employing Dreamers on Capitol Hill

$3.9 billion measure would boost funding for interns, revive defunct technology office

House appropriators released a $3.9 billion House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill Tuesday ahead of subcommittee action set for Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats touted the revival of the defunct Office of Technology Assessment and the legal employment of so-called Dreamers in the $3.94 billion House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill they released Tuesday.

The fiscal 2020 proposal includes an overall proposed increase of $135 million, or 3.6 percent more than the current funding level, according to a summary. The Legislative Branch subcommittee is set to take up the bill at a markup on Wednesday.

“This bill reverses a trend of recent years that prioritized property over people,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey said in a statement. “The investments we are making are critical to improving Legislative Branch efficacy and to maintaining and developing a workforce of talented professionals who are essential to the legislative process.” 

[Little-known provision prevents Dreamers from working on Capitol Hill]

The bill includes $6 million in initial funding to restore the technology office that was defunded more than 20 years ago. Advocates say it could help Congress understand emerging technology and its social and policy implications.

The Office of Technology Assessment, often referred to as OTA, provided Congress with analysis of technology issues from 1972 to 1995. The agency’s mission was to ensure lawmakers had the information they needed on new or expanding technologies and objective information assessing impacts, policy proposals and scientific expertise “to match that of the executive branch.”

“I am very pleased to restore the Office of Technology Assessment, which will help Congress understand technology developments and pave the way for better technology and science policy,” said Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan of Ohio.

Hiring ‘Dreamers’

Separately, the bill would open the door for recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program to work legally on Capitol Hill.

Current law bars most non-U.S. citizens from working for the federal government. Even congressional staffers with legal residency, including refugees, must sign an affidavit swearing they are taking steps toward full citizenship.

The measure includes language permitting Legislative Branch agencies to employ so-called Dreamers — residents brought to the U.S. illegally as children — who already hold employment authorization under DACA. The bill would override existing prohibitions on the use of government funds to employ people who are not U.S. citizens.

Staff and intern salaries

The measure would also boost funding for Members’ Representational Allowances, the office accounts that House members use to pay for staff salaries, official travel and constituent mail. MRAs would be funded at $602 million in fiscal 2020, an increase of about 5 percent over current funding.

The committee summary said member office accounts would rise by about 2 percent, however. Hollander said the rest of the increase would be used to address shortfalls in major House accounts where current appropriations do not reach authorized levels.

Committee staff indicated that in previous years, MRA funds have been transferred by leadership to cover shortfalls in other accounts. The additional boost to the MRA account would be used to correct that practice, according to Hollander.

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Lawmakers have raised concerns about a brain drain on Capitol Hill as experienced staffers and experts either leave Congress for more lucrative private-sector work, or offices struggle to recruit experts in sought-after areas like cybersecurity for a serious pay cut.

Intern pay, first codified in the fiscal 2019 Legislative Branch spending bill, would see a boost in fiscal 2020. The bill would provide $11 million in funding for paying interns, increasing the allowance for each member office from $20,000 to $25,000. The measure also extends the internship funding to leadership offices, with $200,000 allocated for compensation of interns who serve in House leadership offices of the majority, and $165,000 for minority leadership offices.

“I’m especially proud this bill includes a funding increase to pay our interns. It’s long overdue. These young people are an integral part of every Congressional office and should be paid for their work,” said Ryan.

That increase, however, is shy of the nearly $13.8 million that Democratic Rep. Adam Smith requested in a letter to the Legislative Branch subcommittee in March. He has introduced a bill that would permanently authorize enough money to fund a full-time, year-round internship position in each member’s Capitol Hill or district congressional office at a rate of $15 per hour for the first year of enactment.

The bill and committee summary were silent on one issue Republicans have touted in recent years — a member pay freeze. But that doesn’t mean that the newly empowered Democrats are planning to increase lawmaker salaries.

“Democrats on the Appropriations Committee have always believed all provisions related to federal pay belong in the Financial Services and General Government bill, not the Legislative Branch bill. If we make a final decision to continue a prohibition on the statutorily-required cost of living adjustment, we will return to our practice of including that language in the Financial Services and General Government bill,” Appropriations Committee spokesperson Evan Hollander said.

As in past years, the bill does not address funding for Senate-only operations, which will be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the weeks ahead.

The House itself would see a $94 million funding increase under the measure, to $1.33 billion in fiscal 2020. Roughly half of that increase would go towards addressing “shortfalls in major House accounts where current appropriations may not be sufficient to support currently authorized spending,” according to a committee summary.

A $6 million increase is included for House committees, for a total of $157 million for committee operations. The fiscal 2020 appropriation for committees will cover authorized funds approved in March under a two-year resolution that requested funding for each of the standing and select committees.

Leadership offices would be funded at $28 million under the proposed measure, $3 million more than appropriated in 2019.

The Capitol Police, accustomed to annual increases, would see their budget grow to $463 million in fiscal 2020. Part of the $7 million increase would fund overtime needs, travel and protective services for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa told the panel earlier this year that the department brings the assets usually available on the Capitol campus to the conventions. Those include teams and technology to detect and mitigate suspicious packages, SWAT teams and K9 units, which sweep areas where members of Congress may gather outside the perimeter.

“We look at it from the perspective that it’s half, it’s basically half the Congress is going to one place,” Verderosa said.

The Library of Congress would be funded at $720 million, an increase of $24 million for fiscal 2020. That funding level will allow the agency to address “urgent information technology needs,” according to a committee summary. The measure also includes $5 million for the Library’s ambitious effort to overhaul the visitor experience at the flagship Thomas Jefferson building. The project is subject to review by the Appropriations Committee, including plans, cost estimates and schedules, which are expected later this summer.

The Architect of the Capitol would be funded at $615 million, $26 million less than the current funding level. The funding would support twelve new renovation projects.

“The reduction reflects support for fewer new renovation projects than in fiscal year 2019, due to overall budget constraints,” says a committee summary.

Clarification: This story was clarified to reflect the percentage increase for Member Representational Allowances, which is higher than stated in the committee summary, and that the additional amount would be used to fund shortfalls in other House accounts.

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