WASHINGTON -- In this year of higher taxes and national parsimony, there are some items Congress wants to buy for itself that have been deemed too vital to give up.
There's the renovation of the House of Representatives Beauty Parlor, for one, which would cost $375,000.
There's the pilot program for video-conferencing, for another -- a $130,000 project that could turn into another advantage of incumbency. Some day it may allow lawmakers to appear on video screens in their home districts when they're too busy to go home, as they are now, two weeks before Election Day.
There's also, to name a few more:
* $2 million to renovate the kitchen and members' dining area of the House restaurant in the Capitol.
* $25,000 to study where to put a gymnasium for congressional staff (members already have their own).
* $40,000 to replace trash cans.
And buried within the overall $1.7 billion cost of keeping Congress running another year -- up from last year's tab of $1.54 billion -- will be perhaps the steepest increase of all: the nearly $30,000-per-member House pay raise -- from $96,600 to about $125,000 -- which glides into the new budget as a "permanent appropriation" passed last year and is not subject to challenge. Total cost: $12.25 million.
The funding for the beauty shop, restaurant, gymnasium study, trash cans and pay raise were not approved separately. It was wrapped into the House legislative appropriations bill, which was passed on a roll call vote.
(As of yesterday evening, the Senate had not yet passed its own version of the legislative appropriations bill, and its action will add further expenses pertaining to the Senate only. Differences in the plans will be worked out in a conference committee; generally, the two chambers leave each other's pet items alone.)
Part of the reason for the growth of the congressional budget, besides the pay raise, is inflation and leftover postage bills from last year. But there are also the little extras, like the beauty parlor renovation, one of the few items to spark any debate when the House approved its own appropriations last Sunday.
Representative Harris W. Fawell, R-Ill., set off more than an hour of debate on the matter when he offered an amendment to cut the money. It was a move that didn't seem to please House leaders.
In the subcommittee report on legislative appropriations, the beauty parlor item (which was originally $55,000 higher) had appeared only as "$430,000 to remodel certain Cannon building space." (The beauty parlor is on the first floor of the Cannon House office building.) When Representative Fawell's amendment brought the item into the open, the subcommittee chairman, Representative Vic Fazio, D-Calif., said on the House floor, "I frankly wish this subject had not come up."
Mr. Fawell said yesterday that's because "when you question a perk, it's like taking candy from a baby."
In speaking to his colleagues, Mr. Fawell pointed out that operation of the beauty shop, a money loser the past two years, had been subsidized by $17,000 in government money those two years. The shop is not a private operation. Any profit at the end of the year goes to the general treasury.
Representative Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, opposed the amendment, saying the House barbershop gets much greater subsidies (about $110,000 last year) than does the beauty parlor. She said Mr. Fawell's proposal smacked of sexism.
Mr. Fawell, by now exasperated, said he didn't much like the barbershop either. "I think most taxpayers would say we could get our hair cut or our hair fixed just like most of the people in America do."
But the amendment failed, and dying with it was his proposal to ax the $25,000 for studying the site of a staff gym as well. His request for a roll call vote died for lack of support.
The House did, however, kill a $500,000 study on whether to buy modular furniture after hearing that a similar study two years ago had concluded that such furniture, while nice, would cost too much.
The lawmakers also imposed limits on how much free mail they can send to their constituents, a practice that has drawn criticism as a disguised form of campaigning.
And then there was the matter of the pay raise.
When Representative James A. Traficant Jr., D-Ohio, rose to oppose the pay raise as part of a rambling tirade against foreign aid and other spending increases, Mr. Fazio quickly set him straight.
"I appreciate the gentleman's concern about burden sharing or the lack of reduction in foreign aid, et cetera," Mr. Fazio said. "I just wanted to clarify, though: There is no pay raise for members of Congress in this bill."
He then pointed out that the raise was locked in, as part of the Ethics Bill that was passed last year. Built into that bill was a clause stating that any later repeal of the pay raise would automatically void the ethics reforms that accompanied it.