Amid spending battle, McHenry remodels office

As members of Congress debated deep cuts to federal spending, workers were busy inside the Capitol Hill office of GOP Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry.

The renovations included laying new carpet, a new coat of paint for the walls, hanging drapes and unboxing new furniture.

McHenry, an outspoken conservative from Cherryville whose district stretches from the suburbs of Charlotte west into the Blue Ridge, said through a spokesman the work had been scheduled for months and that the new furniture was needed to replace old wooden desks that were "basically falling apart."

"We'd had problems with people getting splinters," said Ryan Minto, McHenry's spokesman.

Minto said McHenry's staff had not been told exactly how much the work will cost. The new furniture is being paid for through a long-standing program to update Congressional offices with cubicles and more modern, modular furniture.

A House aide familiar with the program said the renovations typically run about $60,000 per office, though detailed numbers for McHenry's renovation were not yet available.

"None of this is new spending," Minto said. "Everyone up here knows this has been going on for years."

But after McHenry and other Republicans demanded massive spending cuts in exchange for voting to raise the federal debt ceiling, the congressman's office renovation became political fodder.

"I think he missed his opportunity to back up his words, to put his money where his mouth is," said Jay Parmley, the executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party. "He should have and could have simply rejected the opportunity to have his office renovated, and I think it's a question of leadership.

"It's do as I say but please don't do what I do because if that's the case, gosh my actions are not going to match my rhetoric."

McHenry has criticized President Barack Obama and Democrats for too much spending and what he calls the nation's escalating "Skyscraper of Debt."

"The federal government has grown to an unsustainable level, and we can't be scared to cut programs that benefit a select few when the health of our economy hangs in the balance," McHenry wrote in a recent newspaper column.

He was a co-sponsor of the GOP-backed Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which would trim $111 billion in fiscal year 2012, place caps on future spending and require the passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment before the debt ceiling could be increased. Democrats said that bill, which failed to pass the Senate, would put funding for such programs as Medicaid and Medicare at risk.

Committee on House Administration spokeswoman Salley Wood said House members sometimes decline to accept new furniture, though she could not immediately recall any names.

Since the mid-1990s, the federal budget has included money for replacing the furniture in about 40 Congressional offices during each two-year session. Who gets the new furniture first is determined by seniority.

So far, the furniture in about half of the 435 House offices has been swapped out.

Records show that acceptance of the new furniture has been thoroughly bi-partisan. Among North Carolina's delegation, four Democrats and three Republicans have either gotten new furniture or moved into an office that had already been updated.

Rep. Howard Coble, a 14-term Republican veteran from Greensboro, said he declined the furniture upgrade when it was his turn several years ago, preferring to stick with the vintage wooden desks. But Coble's staff still ended up with cubicles after moving into a new office at the start of this year.

"I think this sort of comes under the heading of an unfair criticism," Coble said of Democrats slamming McHenry over the furniture upgrade. "I have to side with Patrick on this one. This is very routine, not unusual at all."

McHenry is the only representative from North Carolina scheduled for an upgrade this year.

Minto pointed out that McHenry voted earlier this year for an 11 percent cut to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, which includes the furniture renovation fund.

Although Minto said McHenry had been aware since at least February that the new furniture was coming, the congressman has not been intimately involved with the details.

"He does everything he can to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars," Minto said of his boss. "That decision was made by our office manager. We don't typically ask the congressman to weigh in on rearranging office furniture."