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House votes to cut its own funding

chart_congress_spending.top.gif By Charles Riley, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The new Republican-led House of Representatives voted Thursday to cut its operating budget by 5% -- a move meant to reflect the GOP's desire to reduce the size of the federal government.

The measure, which GOP aides claim will save $35 million, passed 410-13. The "no" votes were cast by Democrats.

Of course, the $35 million won't make a dent in the nation's deficit. The cuts amount to 0.001% of Washington's $3.5 trillion annual federal budget.

"Thirty-five million is absolutely nothing in terms of debt. It's not even a decimal point," said Craig Jennings, the director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, a group that monitors federal spending.

But for 435 lawmakers, who last year were allotted about $1.5 million each, the cut will mean trimming their budgets by $75,000 -- the equivalent of about 1.5 full-time staffers.

Republicans insist the cut is a good starting point before pushing larger spending reductions.

"It is a down payment on the future actions of this House," said Dan Lungren, a Republican from California.

The measure focuses on reducing the operating budgets of House committees, leadership offices and individual member offices. It does not affect Senate funding.

Each lawmaker is responsible for deciding how to allot individual office funds, and can choose how to implement his or her share of the cut.

But not every House member is going to be looking under the office couch for loose change. Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah said Thursday that his office has been well under budget -- to the tune of more than $600,000 -- over the past two years.

"I run one of the leanest offices in the Congress without compromising constituent service," Chaffetz said in a statement.

Chaffetz's thriftiness is a bonus for taxpayers. By law, any unspent funds from a lawmaker's budget are used to reduce the deficit.

Some lawmakers might try to find other places to cut so they can keep staff salaries at their current levels.

"If the 5% comes out of salaries of staff, that could be pretty ... painful for them, because a lot of the staff are very young professionals who don't get paid much to begin with," Jennings said.

A congressional chief of staff on Capitol Hill might make more than $130,000 a year, but other staffers -- schedulers, legislative assistants and staff assistants -- make less than $50,000, according to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation.

A 5% cut is just slight enough to avoid "cutting into the bone," according to Bradford Fitch, CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a non-partisan organization focused on improving the efficiency of Congress.

For lawmakers, that might mean fewer trips to their home districts, the consolidation of district offices or scaling back communications expenses.

If that's the case, constituents might suffer.

"It could have a real impact on constituent services," Fitch said. "The mail might not get answered."

-CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report. To top of page

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