House office-related spending up 25 percent over five years

In a political atmosphere colored by tax cuts and a growing national debt, spending by House members on office-related expenditures has risen by 25 percent in the past five years, according to government figures.

Representatives are given a yearly allowance, called the member’s representational allowance, by the Administration Committee to fund office expenses. In 2004, representatives spent a total of $490 million from their allowances, up from $391 million in 1999.

The top 10 House members in spending were determined by the percentage of their allowances spent during 2004. Reps. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), came within 1 percent of their congressional spending limits during 2004, almost 10 percent over the average for that year.

Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash), Ed Case (D-Hawaii) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) spent between $1.1 million and $1.4 million each, or more than 98 percent of their allowances. Of the 10 lowest spending House lawmakers, Virgil Goode (R-Va.) spent the least, $686,202.29, or 58 percent of his allowance.

David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “Charity begins at home, and if members are so concerned with helping taxpayers then maybe they should look at their own spending. It is an important symbolic gesture.

“There is a reason that people become cynical about government with the image of a big fat-cat politician with dollar bills coming out of his pockets, and it would be nice to see congressmen change that.”

Confusion over the allowance is a common problem. Many offices don’t understand the structure of the allowance and see it as a personal checking account rather than an allowance from a central fund, according to congressional sources.

Lawmakers with relatively high personal spending offered varying explanations.

Case cited improved constituent care. He said, “I’ve put a real premium on constituent outreach. I wasn’t satisfied with last year’s efforts, so I raised the budget in ’04 for outreach purposes.”

He also cited the inequality of local pay scales. He said that other federal employees in Hawaii are given a 15 percent living expense on top of their regular salaries. By providing the same to his employees, Case has a higher payroll than other members.

Stearns said that his expenditures were above average this year because of a one-time upgrade of his computer system. He said, “I am very careful in spending taxpayer funds in the operation of my congressional office. In fact, I return unspent money back to the House every year. Over the past six years, 1999 through 2004, I have limited office spending to nearly 10 percent below the House allowance.” In 2003, Stearns spent 87 percent of his allowance.

Nadler’s office cited a technological upgrade and the diverse needs of his district. A spokesman said, “We have a large and vigorous constituent-outreach staff. We have two different offices, one in the west side of Manhattan, and through the years our constituency has become more diverse so our staff has had to grow to handle the languages necessary.”

A spokesman for McCarthy said, “This money was appropriated for us to better serve our constituents, and we feel it was money well spent in serving our constituents. There was nothing egregious in our spending, and if you look at the numbers we get less than $3 per constituent. We feel it was money well spent and hope our constituents feel [the] same.”

Samuel Marchio in Boehlert’s office disputed the notion that 98.93 percent was an above-average figure and questioned the number of offices that spent less than 98 percent (406 members spent less than 98 percent). He added, “If we don’t spend it, someone else will.”

Unused money is returned to the Treasury at the end of the fiscal year. A bill sponsored by Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) would require that excess allowance money be put toward reducing the federal deficit.

Individual allowances are calculated at the start of each fiscal year using three figures that cover payroll, office expenses and franked mail. In 2004, the payroll figure was $778,993.
The official expenses formula for 2004 was a base of $187,236, plus travel and rental allowances. The travel allowance is calculated using the distance between the member’s district and Washington, D.C., and a rate per mile that ranges between 36 and 96 cents. The rental allowance provides for a 2,500-square-foot office charged at the same rate as other federal agencies in the member’s district.

To determine the mail component, the cost of a first-class letter is tripled and multiplied by the number of addresses (nonbusiness delivery stops determined by the postmaster general) in the member’s district. The mail component is equal to 45 percent of that total.

The formula’s variables (distance, rent, addresses) try to equalize the quality of service across the varied economic circumstances of different districts.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, the listed totals for 2004 will probably rise, as members are able to modify their financial statements in future reports. Roll Call last week reported that former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) overspent his 2004 allowance after giving bonuses to his employees in 2005.

David Keating, spokesman for the NTU, said that there are about 3,000 corrections a year and that some lawmakers will exceed their budgets. Legislators who overspend must reimburse the Treasury from private funds.