The $2.2 trillion CARES Act includes expanded unemployment insurance, direct payments to most taxpayers, and funding to protect this year’s elections. But some of the money in the emergency stimulus bill is going to Congress. Why? Did lawmakers just give themselves a pay raise?
In a word: no.
The bill includes $93.1 million in legislative branch appropriations, but none of that money will go to pay raises for members of Congress. Instead, these appropriations will help Congress continue to function and pay critical support staff during the coronavirus outbreak.
- House of Representatives: The CARES Act includes $25 million for the House. This money is to fund remote work and purchase supplies so employees can work from home. It also includes funds to pay restaurant workers and vendors for food and service contracts, and to pay employees at the House Child Care Center.
- Senate: The upper chamber will get $10 million. Of that, $1 million has been designated for the Sergeant at Arms to cover teleworking costs for committees and offices. The rest is allocated to cover emergency coronavirus-related needs, including paying workers at the Senate Employees Child Care Center.
- Architect of the Capitol: This is the agency responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Capitol complex. This bill allocates $25 million to buy cleaning supplies and fund ongoing service contracts.
- Government Accountability Office: As the agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, the GAO will get $20 million to conduct oversight of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. This money will also go towards salaries and staff costs at the GAO’s child care center.
- Capitol Police: They will receive $12 million to maintain staffing levels to protect and secure the Capitol grounds, including funding to cover remote working.
- Library of Congress: The bill allocates $700,000 to the Library of Congress to reimburse child care staff.
- Office of the Attending Physician: The office charged with meeting the medical needs of Members of Congress will get $400,000 to purchase medical supplies and personal protective equipment.
So why does the legislative branch need this funding now? The simple answer: Congress needs to be able to function during this pandemic. And because of a long-standing underinvestment in technology, Congress isn’t well prepared.
Members of Congress can’t do all their work from home. Some things, like voting, currently have to be done in person. But in order to implement social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many lawmakers and staff are transitioning to working remotely when they can. That requires technology and software that Congress hasn’t widely used before, unlike other branches of government. Legislative branch employees need basic teleworking supplies like secure laptops. The CARES Act allocates funding for these kinds of supplies.
COVID-19 has highlighted that Congress needs to seriously invest in the technological capacity of the legislative branch. Fortunately, some were thinking about this problem before the pandemic. In early March, the House passed H.Res. 756, a package of recommendations from the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress that included steps to modernize technology in the House.
It is during national emergencies like COVID-19 when it is most pressing for our government to be functioning well to address these challenges. This money for the legislative branch is only 0.004% of the total amount funded through the CARES Act. Like the rest of us, those who work in the legislative branch are trying to keep themselves and others healthy by following social distancing practices, working from home when they can, and ensuring that Congress can continue to conduct legislative business.
The $93.1 million in legislative branch funding in the CARES Act is an essential step in ensuring that Congress will continue to operate safely during this pandemic. As the crisis continues to unfold, though, more funds for the legislative branch will likely be necessary for members to carry out their representative duties. In emergencies, district and state offices back home act as conduits for constituents to the federal government. They are ombudsman for accessing government programs and navigating complex bureaucracies through case work. Members will need to ramp up tele-townhalls and other virtual platforms for hearing from their constituents. Already strained congressional office budgets will struggle to serve their constituents well without additional resources.
Congress may be behind the curve on technological investment, but it’s better to start now than never.