This piece was co-written with Mark Harkins, a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. He worked on Capitol Hill for over 17 years in various positions including Chief of Staff in a personal office. The Fix at the Washington Post has an interesting piece on the cost of setting up and running a congressional office. This comes in the wake of Sticker-Schock. A piece in the Washington Post which unveiled Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) spending tens of thousands of dollars on office furniture. The Fix piece shows exactly how many tax dollars each member of Congress spent on their offices over the last two years. There is a lot of variance in these numbers and it’s helpful to get some context when judging your members’ interior design habits.
The overwhelming amount of money spent on offices is allocated to rent and parking. Not surprisingly, nearly all the top spenders come from high rent areas as the blog acknowledges. New Jersey, New York, and California almost completely dominate the top spenders list. For example, the chart shows Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) as the top overall spender at $407,816. But $392,541 of that is rent and parking. Look at the second person on the list Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY). His overall cost is $326,002 but his rent and parking are $260,075. The case can be made that Meeks is a bigger spender as he spent $66,000 on non-rent whereas Pascrell only spent $15,000 on non-rent items.
Another factor these numbers don’t account for are the number of district offices per member and their office travel costs. A large sprawling district need more district office locations to provide constituent services. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who represents the entire state of Wyoming, has four district offices spread out across the state. In contrast, Rep. Jose Serrano’s district (D-NY) is only a few New York City blocks in diameter and only needs a single district office. Larger geographic districts are likely to have higher furniture, equipment, and supply costs eating into their representational allowance (known as the Members Representational Allowance, or MRA). While Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) may have spent more than $19,000 over the last two years on furniture and supplies, he represents a district that stretches almost 500 miles from Canada to Nevada. That's a lot of territory to cover. Unless you prefer your congress persons’ staff to work with old computers with 1998 Windows technology as they track down your loved one’s social security check, federal grant, or passport, furniture and supply spending is not necessarily a bad thing.
Redistricting also has a significant effect on these costs. In some cases members had to open several new district offices to conform to the new lines. The costs of opening new offices could also inflate their spending numbers during redistricting cycles. High office costs in 2013-14 may not be because your member splurged on a fancy chandelier. It’s more likely they had to open a new office to adapt to their new district lines.
And lastly, many costs incurred by an office are on scheduled time frames. For example, despite wear and tear in their Washington offices members can only replace the carpet and drapes every 7 years. So you may want to cut some slack for Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) $8,000 carpet expenses or Rep. Sanford Bishop’s (D-GA) $2,241 drape replacement. Overlooking this requirement could give many representatives a bad-wrap for updating what are likely extraordinarily well-worn carpets.
Even account for all of this it doesn’t tell the whole story. Members’ representational allowances vary. Salaries, rent, supplies, equipment, computers, software, office travel costs, among others are all paid with this account. Depending on the rent of a members’ district, its distance from D.C., and number postal address (for franking), some members receive more than others due to the costs associated with traveling longer distances and representing a larger area with more people. A large geographic district in California would receive more money than a small one from Northern Virginia. In other words, Rep. Raul Ruiz’s (D-CA) $12,466 dollar office expense is likely a smaller percentage of his MRA than smaller geographic districts located closer to DC.
The Fix’s analysis in light of the Schocking amount spent by some Members of the House on décor is timely. There are always exceptions but more than likely your member’s spending habits are not a case of government run wild. MRA budgets have seen significant cuts in recent years. Most offices do not have enough money left over after salaries and supplies to hire their full complement of staff. It’s helpful to keep an eye on spending. But we also need to understand that many offices are already stretched thin trying to run effective representational operations for, on average, 725,000 people.