GOP Conducts Chopping-Block Audit Of Congress

THE Botanic Gardens at the foot of Capitol Hill are chock-a-petal with everything from African herbs to lady-slipper orchids.

The huge greenhouse, run by Congress at a cost of $3 million a year, grows the plants that adorn federal buildings and brighten public functions - everything from Kentia palms to Norfolk Island pines. Now Republicans are going to poke their noses in and see if Congress should be smelling so many roses.

The Botanic Gardens is just one of hundreds of items House Republicans, under Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, plan to review in their push to shrink the size of government.

Though the Botanic Gardens budget may or may not end up being pruned, the perusing of its functions by the Republicans underscores the extent to which they are rethinking how the legislature works after 40 years of Democratic rule.

Even as Mr. Gingrich and others lay the philosophical outlines of their revolution, a committee's worth of GOP members and staffers are digging through the minutiae of Capitol Hill to determine where cuts and changes could be made.

Their audit currently covers some 40 categories, ranging from parking privileges at National Airport to the duties of the ``doorkeeper of the House'' - an office with several dozen staffers.

It may seem odd to spend time searching for savings in, say, the way the House chaplain conducts his activities when there are big-ticket items like military spending to deal with. But Republicans argue small savings add up - and the public has spoken loudly about the size of government.

``You've got to get your own house in order first,'' says Ed Gillespie, spokesman for the GOP transition team. ``I don't know when the practice of delivering a bucket of ice to each member each day began, or how much it costs, but I imagine there might be some savings there.''

One segment of the GOP review focuses on the 31 congressional groups known as legislative service organizations (LSOs). These are issue-specific caucuses that provide information to members. They can play powerful roles in shaping policy. Ranging from the Border Caucus to the Textile Caucus, these groups have budgets, offices, and staffs.

Although some are older, LSOs became a mainstay on Capitol Hill in the early 1980s. The funding is what the GOP bureaucracy-snippers are interested in.

LSO members pay dues from their personal allowances. From 1983 to 1992, according to Rep. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, LSOs spent almost $35 million in taxpayer money. Of that amount, $7.7 million remains unaccounted for. Mr. Roberts, a longtime opponent of the groups, charges they spend money in ways individual members can't, such as on pastries for parties.

The LSO issue spilled into the headlines this week when Newsweek stated, apparently inaccurately, that the Republicans planned to eliminate funding of the Black Caucus, an LSO that had influenced the Clinton administration's Haiti policy.

It is true that Roberts would prefer to disband all but two study groups, one for each side of the aisle. But the GOP has not singled out the Black Caucus.

Not all the House reviews will lead to cost-cutting. Some are intended to inform GOP leaders about functions and offices they haven't had to oversee in 40 years. This includes such things as the architect of the House, the office that produces government stationary, and the guides who conduct Capitol tours.

Prof. Leroy Rieselbach, a congressional expert at Indiana University, doesn't expect the GOP will save much money or government will become much smaller for all the audits. But he sees value in the exercise.

``The whole of Congress is nickels and dimes,'' he says. But reviewing every activity on the Hill ``will send a message that they're making Congress the people's branch; and maybe they'll save a few bucks here and there.''

Meanwhile, if the House pruners are interested in the Botanic Gardens' inventory, it has roughly 45,000 orchid petals.

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