Lawmakers' PR cuts should start with their own staff

February 18, 2011 

Hypocrisy and budget writing go hand in hand. But, really, do budget writers here in Olympia and in the nation's capital really think the public isn't paying attention?

We are paying attention and we don’t like the hypocrisy.

Here in Olympia lawmakers are looking to reduce the ranks of the hundreds of employees who do marketing or communications work for state government agencies. But their proposal leaves untouched more than 30 similar positions in the Legislature.

State lawmakers apparently are willing to slash the public relations efforts for agencies of government, but unwilling to tamper with the number of staffers who crank out an endless supply of press releases promoting individual lawmakers.

The hypocrisy at the national level is equally galling.

Flexing their new majority in Congress, Republicans unveiled a budget proposal that would reduce domestic agencies’ spending by 9 percent on average through September, when the current budget year ends. If that plan becomes law, it could lead to layoffs of tens of thousands of federal employees, big cuts to heating and housing subsidies for the poor, reduced grants to schools and law enforcement agencies, and a major hit to the Internal Revenue Service’s budget.

Congress, on the other hand, would get nicked by a mere 2 percent, or $94 million.

Can you say hypocrisy?

Recent hefty increases to the congressional budget – engineered by Democrats when they held power in the House from 2007-2010 – would remain largely in place under the GOP’s spending plan which would cut Congress’ budget less than any other domestic spending bill, except for the one covering the Department of Homeland Security.

When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they inherited a $3.8 billion budget for Congress. Since then, that budget has risen to $4.7 billion, a 23 percent increase over four years.

Yet Republicans propose just a 2 percent trim of the congressional budget. That pales in comparison to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered an 8 percent cut in Congress’ budget when Republicans last wrested control of the House from Democrats in 1995.

House Speaker John Boehner’s press and communications operation, alone, includes a dozen staffers.

Lawmakers in the statehouse don’t have that kind of staff, but collectively they do have several dozen communication employees whose job it is to issue an endless string of press releases in hopes that news outlets will use the information to educate the legislators’ constituents back home.

These communication staff jobs are year-around staff positions even though their bosses – legislators – only spend 105 days in session in odd-numbered years and three months in Olympia during even-numbered years. State law keeps the employees from updating websites or putting out news releases after June 30 in an election year, lest lawmakers be accused of campaigning on the public’s dime. Yet the staffs are on the payroll year around.

It’s safe to say the number of public relations employees in Olympia outnumber the permanent press corps by three-to-one.

The Senate version of the short-term budget-cutting plan calls for a $1 million savings across the state’s public relations corps over a four-month period.

Budget director Marty Brown noted the Senate’s hypocrisy of cutting agency PR staffs, but not their own. “I would just ask them, how many communications folks do they have in the four (legislative) caucuses?” Brown said.

Some lawmakers justify the hypocrisy, saying their branch is supposed to advance ideas and needs staff to get those ideas out to the public. They see theirs as minuscule compared with the executive branch’s communications corps of at least 380.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, a Republican, and Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, a Democrat, see the executive branch’s public-relations work as a way for agencies to advocate for their own existence and growth.

Right. As if the PR staff in the House and Senate’s primary role is not to advocate for the continued existence of individual lawmakers.

Such hypocrisy.

If lawmakers slash away at the PR staff in agency offices, they darn well better start by cutting their own communications staff. That is if they don’t want to be accused of hypocrisy.

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