Congress

Jim Jordan seeks to block increased funds for Oversight panel he helps lead

Chairman Elijah Cummings wants to rebuild staffing, but his GOP counterpart does not

Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, right, and ranking member Jim Jordan are the only House committee leaders to disagree about funding levels for their panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As House Democrats ramp up their oversight investigations into President Donald Trump’s administration, businesses, and 2016 campaign, at least one Republican has found a new battleground to push back: funding for the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

That panel’s chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, asked the House Administration Committee on Tuesday for a funding increase of 4 percent this year and 10 percent next year over funding levels from the previous, GOP-controlled 115th Congress.

But Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Oversight panel, opposed Cummings’ budget request, citing the national debt and criticizing Democratic committee members’ investigative priorities. The Oversight panel — which is investigating the Trump administration’s security clearance policy and the president’s potential conflicts of interest stemming from his businesses, among other threads of inquiry — could use that extra funding to fill “essential” staff positions that Cummings asserted on Tuesday have “long been vacant.”

The Maryland Democrat indicated in an interview with Roll Call last week that the committee’s communications staff is long overdue for more resources.

“Even if the investigations weren’t going on, in this era of social media we have a lot more people contacting us, and we got to answer,” Cummings said.

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Jordan, one of Trump’s closest allies in the House, was the only ranking member in the chamber to oppose a Democratic committee budget proposal.

The Ohio Republican told Roll Call on Tuesday that while he personally would prefer that the Oversight Committee’s budget be reduced even further from the last Congress, he is asking that it remain the same.

“Here’s the bottom line: We’ve got a $22 trillion debt. It seems to me Congress should set the example and not be increasing budgets for Congress,” Jordan said.

Jordan criticized Democrats for bringing in former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen for public testimony in February. Cohen will begin a three-year prison sentence in May after he pleaded guilty last year to multiple charges of financial fraud as well as to lying to Congress in 2017.

“You look at the first two months of this Congress with the Oversight Committee and what the Democrats have done — really? We want more money for more Michael Cohen hearings? Come on,” Jordan said.

Also watch: Cohen vs. the GOP — the many defenses for Trump

A larger purpose

House Democrats, of course, have a different view of the Cohen hearing, in which the former Trump “fixer” made claims of questionable conduct by the president, his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, his daughter Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner.

And Cummings argued Tuesday that the committee’s larger purpose is to identify and root out government waste and corruption that “often results in direct savings to the taxpayer.”

He pointed to the panel’s oversight of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis, the upcoming 2020 census, the financial issues plaguing the Postal Service, and rising prescription drug prices. 

At the current Oversight Committee funding level of about $9.1 million — or about $18.3 million for the entirety of the two-year funding window — the Democratic staff would not be able to fund 15 vacant positions, Cummings said. Republicans would not be able to fund 10. The majority party usually receives two-thirds of the committee budget, while the minority party receives the other third.

Cummings’ budget request would increase the committee’s funding by $730,387 for the first year of the current Congress and $912,984 for the second year.

Making their case

The Oversight and Reform panel was the only one  in the House in which the chairman and ranking member could not come to agreement on a funding-level request. 

In previous Congresses, committee leaders would present and defend their funding requests for the next two years to the House Administration panel, a process that necessitated a two-day hearing.

But the new Administration chairwoman, Zoe Lofgren, has tossed aside that process in favor of a more expedited one.

The California Democrat’s panel heard from each committee about funding requests, but not every committee’s party leaders spoke at the hearing.

“If the chairman and ranking member agree [on a budget request], we have the opportunity not to have them come in and go through some rigmarole,” Lofgren told Roll Call.

Only if the chairman and ranking member couldn’t reconcile on a funding-level request were they required to attend the hearing and plead their case to the House Administration panel. 

Lofgren left open the possibility of calling a committee’s leaders to testify, however, if she or ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois had questions for them.

A biennial ask

House committees are funded through a two-year resolution that requests funding for each of the standing and select committees. The measure is based, in part, on the committees’ own requests for funds to cover their expenses for the two-year length of a Congress.

Operating budgets for all standing and select committees are authorized by the House Administration Committee and the funding is included in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

But because the fiscal year appropriations do not align with authorizations for committee funding — which follows a biennial calendar-year schedule — House Administration has to decide how to divvy up existing fiscal 2019 funding before considering fiscal 2020. For any biennial committee funding resolution, funds may be drawn from money appropriated in three different fiscal years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Cummings argued in his testimony Tuesday that while he is asking for an increase in funding compared to 2017 and 2018 levels, the committee’s budget under his proposal would fall far short of funding levels from President Barack Obama’s first term in office.

He would be correct. Back in 2009 and 2010, the House Oversight and Reform panel was authorized about $22.3 million over the course of the 111th Congress.

The funding for the last Congress, the 115th — which the panel is getting by on until new funds are approved — was just under $18.3 million. That’s about an 18 percent drop in committee funding in the last decade.

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