Members of Congress worked furiously to pass a budget that would stanch the federal government's torrent of red ink, but they still managed to spend money on improving their own images.
In a year when the federal budget deficit is expected to exceed $250 billion, Congress managed to find $375,000 to renovate the House beauty parlor and $130,000 for a pilot videoconferencing program in which they would be able to conduct hearings back in their home district without leaving Washington.The legislative spending bill for the new fiscal year includes a number of other appropriations designed to make life a little easier for members of Congress, such as $2 million to renovate the kitchen in the House restaurant. The bill calls for total spending of $1.8 billion, a 6.8 percent increase over the previous year.
"There has been an effort in every section of this bill to very carefully evaluate each expenditure to see if we can hone back and indeed tighten our own belt," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
Other House members saw it differently.
"We should be leading in deficit reduction by example, and not by saying that other parts of government, Medicaid and so on, should be bearing the greater share of the burden of reducing the deficit," said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.
The videoconferencing program would enable witnesses and lawmakers to appear at congressional hearings without actually being in the same room. Witnesses could go to local TV stations and testify, with their remarks and follow-up questions and answers being handled via satellite, much like the interviews Ted Koppel conducts on ABC's "Nightline." Or lawmakers could beam their testimony to a hearing in a distant city while remaining in Washington.
Members of Congress already have access to studios both at the Capitol and through their national political parties to get their message out to the public. The House spends more than $800,000 a year in taxpayers' money running its own recording studio for lawmakers.
Besides the videoconferencing project and the beauty parlor and restaurant renovations, the budget includes money for 52 parking garage attendants and for the U.S. Botanic Gardens, which supplies plants free of charge to the offices of the 535 members of Congress.
Also included was $25,000 to study sites for a gymnasium for House staff. Congressmen already have a private gym.
Before passing the bill in the rush of legislation that marked the end of the 101st Congress, House members rejected amendments that would have cut allocations for the beauty parlor renovations, the gym site study and eight parking attendants.
But they did agree to kill a proposed $500,000 study of using modular furniture in congressional offices. A similar study two years ago concluded that the furniture would cost $22 million and therefore would be too expensive.