WASHINGTON – Congress would get about the same $2.75 billion for its own operations in 2005 as this year and lawmakers would get a chance for enhanced dental and other benefits under a bill the House easily cleared on Monday.
The overall measure, approved 327-43, is $2 million below the amount provided this year for the House and congressional agencies like the Congressional Budget Office (search). The Senate will add money for its own operations when it writes its version of the bill.
The measure would permit an in-house study — estimated to cost $175,000 — on whether to improve the dental, vision and hearing benefits available to House members and their aides. Congress voted last year to block such a study.
Lawmakers and staff currently receive limited coverage, such as pre-tax deductions from their salaries that can be spent on such benefits. The House Administration Committee (search), which oversees internal congressional matters, has said it would have to approve any actual improvement in coverage before it could take effect.
There was no debate about the matter, which most members of Congress would rather not discuss publicly, especially during an election year.
The measure shows that the House "has done its best to practice fiscal restraint" at a time of surging federal deficits, said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee that oversees Congress' own budget.
Even so, the House itself would get $1.04 billion, nearly 3.5 percent more than it received this year. That includes $521 million for representatives' office and mailing expenses, a $7 million increase over 2004.
The bill contains no new funds for the Capitol's visitor center, a three-story underground facility now under construction that has already seen its estimated price tag surge from $265 million to $421 million. Its often-postponed deadline for completion is now spring 2006.
The Capitol police, whose 1,993 positions have surged by 509 since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (search), would get $232 million. That $12 million increase would be enough to add 368 new positions, though the bill would abolish the department's small mounted police force.