Guest post by Philip A. Wallach and Nicholas W. Zeppos
1. How does the House divide its money between members, committees, and leadership?
In order to think clearly about legislative capacity or the lack thereof, we need to have with a clear picture of Congress’s resources today. One of the most obvious starting places to start is with a look at congressional spending: what exactly do the House and Senate spend their money on? The data needed to answer this question, describing the spending done by each chamber on a line item basis, has been publicly available for several years, thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, but to this point there has been little analysis of it. In this and subsequent posts we will offer the first comprehensive look at patterns apparent in the House Statement of Disbursements, focusing on 2015.
Total spending in the House for 2015 was $1.05 billion—excluding member salaries, which at $174,000 per year amount to around $75 million. Of that amount, $194.2 million was categorized as “Personnel Benefits”—overwhelmingly contributions to employee pensions and to the staff student loan repayment program. Ideally, we would want to apportion those personnel costs proportional to the offices that employ the relevant staff, but data formatting issues make doing so a daunting project we do not take up today.
The remaining $859.3 million is spending divided between members’ personal offices, various miscellaneous administrative offices, committees, and leadership as follows:
House committee spending breaks down as follows:
Members’ personal offices are each given a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) according to a set formula taking into account the member’s home district’s distance from DC, cost of office space in the member’s home district, and the number of constituent addresses in the home district. Most members spend nearly their full MRA (set at least $1.2 million for every office—see p. 2526).
The five personal offices with the highest spending are thus those with some of the highest MRAs (and the closest to 100% spent).
The five personal offices with the lowest spending are:
Some of these members are making a point to spend far less than their full MRA, with their surplus allocated toward deficit reduction. For example, Sanford and Webster have both drawn attention to their offices’ frugality. Others on the low spending end may be doing the same, or it is possible that their reporting of their 2015 spending is delayed or problematic for some reason, which would affect the data we are working with.
The next installment will look at what funds are actually spent on.
Philip A Wallach is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Nicholas W. Zeppos is a research assistant in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.
 In order to do this analysis, we cleaned the data in Sunlight’s summary reports in various ways. Where necessary, we collapsed differently labeled entries that referred to the same office into a single category. We also removed personal office records for members who didn’t serve for the full year—or, more precisely, who didn’t have expenditures from all four quarters. Our analysis is based on sum totals obtained by manually combining quarterly totals (which avoids certain problems introduced by relying on the “YTD” column computed by Sunlight).