Why Members of Congress Are Sending Their Staffers Home

Powerless in Washington, a rising number of freshmen are cutting policy jobs and instead hiring in their districts.

Constituent services: Swalwell in his district.
National Journal
Scott Bland
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Scott Bland
Jan. 12, 2014, midnight

Fresh­man Rep. Eric Swal­well of Cali­for­nia was 3,000 miles from Wash­ing­ton when he scored one of the greatest suc­cesses of his con­gres­sion­al ca­reer.

In his East Bay dis­trict, knock­ing on con­stitu­ents’ doors, Swal­well met a man who said he hadn’t heard from his broth­er in the Phil­ip­pines in days, since Typhoon Haiy­an hit the is­lands. The Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man took down the man’s phone num­ber and called him back with in­form­a­tion about the State De­part­ment’s hot­line for loc­at­ing miss­ing re­l­at­ives.

At the same time, Swal­well real­ized that many more Filipi­nos in his dis­trict prob­ably had sim­il­ar prob­lems. “With­in hours,” Swal­well says, “we put up on our Face­book and Twit­ter the phone num­bers you can call through the State De­part­ment to find fam­ily mem­bers. With­in 72 hours, we sent out 6,000 let­ters” tar­geted to Filipino con­stitu­ents. Swal­well stuffed some of the en­vel­opes him­self.

Con­gress didn’t have a great ses­sion. It passed few­er laws in 2013 than in any oth­er year with a re­cor­ded total. And what little le­gis­la­tion did move was the product of the new norm in the con­gres­sion­al pro­cess — a deal brokered be­hind closed doors by lead­er­ship or its sur­rog­ates.

For first-term law­makers, such con­gres­sion­al in­ac­tion can be tox­ic and po­ten­tially ca­reer-end­ing. With al­most no chance to make a mark or score a single le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ment, fresh­men have little op­por­tun­ity to show voters that they are work­ing on their dis­trict’s be­half.

And so, Swal­well and dozens of oth­er fresh­man law­makers have shif­ted re­sources out of the na­tion’s cap­it­al, swap­ping policy staffers for con­stitu­ent-fa­cing dis­trict of­fice work­ers who have a bet­ter chance of af­fect­ing voters than any of their col­leagues in Wash­ing­ton.

In­deed, at the start of 2014, 46 per­cent of all House mem­bers’ staffers now op­er­ate out­side the cap­it­al, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tion­al Journ­al re­view of payrolls and staff list­ings. Swal­well and 34 oth­er fresh­men ex­ceed that pro­por­tion: Col­lect­ively, 52 per­cent of their staff mem­bers work back in the dis­trict.

That means a his­tor­ic­ally large share of staff aides are ded­ic­ated to con­stitu­ent ser­vices, help­ing dis­trict res­id­ents nav­ig­ate fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy — stuff like get­ting new pass­ports, re­cov­er­ing wrongly denied gov­ern­ment be­ne­fits, ad­voc­at­ing in a dis­pute with the IRS, or con­tact­ing en­dangered fam­ily mem­bers abroad.

“People don’t real­ize how much con­tact Con­gress has with con­stitu­ents through these of­fices, help­ing them cut through gov­ern­ment red tape,” said Rep. Rod­ney Dav­is, who ran fel­low Illinois Re­pub­lic­an John Shimkus’s con­gres­sion­al of­fice in Spring­field.

Con­stitu­ent ser­vices has cer­tainly al­ways been im­port­ant, but it hasn’t al­ways been law­makers’ fo­cus. In 1972, less than a quarter of all House mem­bers’ staffers were based in their dis­trict, ac­cord­ing to Vi­tal Stat­ist­ics on Con­gress, a data trove com­piled by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, and the Cam­paign Fin­ance In­sti­tute. That fig­ure climbed stead­ily over the last 40 years, hit­ting highs in the past dec­ade, just as con­gres­sion­al pro­ductiv­ity dropped off sharply.

Now, more than 3,000 House staffers work out­side Wash­ing­ton, mak­ing the ra­tio of dis­trict-to-Dis­trict work­ers high­er than in all but sev­en years on re­cord.

For House Demo­crats, rendered im­pot­ent by minor­ity status, the num­bers are even high­er: 48 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic staff mem­bers work in dis­trict of­fices, com­pared with 45 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an staffers.

Their work is busy and un­af­fected by the le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar. Ron Barber, an Ari­zona Demo­crat who served on pre­de­cessor Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords’s staff as her dis­trict dir­ect­or, says his staff in the Tuc­son area has helped con­stitu­ents re­cov­er $7.5 mil­lion this year in So­cial Se­cur­ity and dis­ab­il­ity pay­ments they’d been wrongly denied. His of­fice opened more than 1,000 cases in 2013. Many of them in­volve gov­ern­ment be­ne­fits, al­though Barber cited an­oth­er cat­egory that stands out to him: help­ing vet­er­ans get medals they should have already re­ceived.

Stor­ies like those can be a big plus for mem­bers dur­ing dif­fi­cult con­gres­sion­al times in Wash­ing­ton. As Rep. Todd Akin be­came a house­hold name out­side Mis­souri for his com­ments about “le­git­im­ate rape,” for ex­ample, the con­tro­versy threatened to en­vel­op firebrand GOP Rep. Steve King in Iowa. King had de­fen­ded Akin, and the press had taken note of his sup­port for bills ban­ning Medi­caid-covered abor­tions for vic­tims of “non-for­cible” rape. But the next day, the loc­al Sioux City Journ­al gave equal billing to an­oth­er story about King present­ing a vet­er­an with eight re­place­ment medals for ones that had been stolen in the 1990s.


Would-be policy staffers wish­ing for work might be un­happy about the dis­trict-staff­ing trend, but polit­ic­al strategists love it, for an ob­vi­ous reas­on. The leg­work in­volved in con­stitu­ent ser­vices of­ten re­sembles the boots-on-the-ground field­work that goes in­to reelec­tion cam­paigns. (Swal­well was on cam­paign duty the day he knocked on his Filipino con­stitu­ent’s door.)

And polit­ic­al strategists in both parties re­com­mend that elect­or­ally vul­ner­able mem­bers staff their dis­tricts at high levels.

Be­sides, the con­stitu­ent-ser­vices part of the job isn’t wholly di­vorced from what goes on in Wash­ing­ton. Some­times there is syn­ergy between case­work and le­gis­la­tion.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Richard Hud­son told a story about Rep. Vir­gin­ia Foxx when she was a fresh­man and he was her chief of staff. At a North Car­o­lina event, she met a con­stitu­ent’s en­lis­ted son, who was hav­ing an un­ex­pec­ted is­sue with his taxes. Be­cause the sol­dier was serving in Ir­aq and re­ceiv­ing com­bat pay, which is nontax­able, he wasn’t al­lowed to con­trib­ute to an IRA. That led Foxx to in­tro­duce a fix in the House.

Pres­id­ent Bush signed the Hero Act, which breezed through Con­gress, in 2006 with Foxx in at­tend­ance.

“That was a great idea that none of us would have thought about sit­ting around a room try­ing to come up with bills,” Hud­son said. Re­cently, his of­fice helped track down dis­charge pa­pers for a de­ceased World War II vet­er­an so he could re­ceive a full mil­it­ary fu­ner­al.

“Be­cause [Foxx] got in the com­munity, we were able to make a change af­fect­ing a lot of people’s lives.”

On the House’s fi­nal Wash­ing­ton work­day of 2013, Swal­well and three oth­er mem­bers (one Demo­crat, two Re­pub­lic­ans) in­tro­duced a bill al­low­ing people to de­duct dona­tions to Typhoon Haiy­an re­lief from their 2013 taxes even if the dona­tions are made in early 2014. It stands a good chance of passing; a sim­il­ar meas­ure in­centiv­iz­ing donor re­lief after the Haiti earth­quake sailed through Con­gress and be­came law in 2010.


Con­stitu­ent ser­vices may be the last pop­u­lar thing that Con­gress does with any reg­u­lar­ity, and the sum of these small, in­di­vidu­al­ized ac­com­plish­ments goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing why Amer­ic­ans al­most nev­er ac­tu­ally get around to “throw­ing the bums out.”

Polling has con­sist­ently shown that people are hap­pi­er with their own rep­res­ent­at­ives than with Con­gress as a whole, a trend that has held even dur­ing the latest pub­lic-opin­ion swoon.

While con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al fell to an all-time low of 14 per­cent in 2013, Gal­lup’s track­ing in Oc­to­ber — in the midst of the gov­ern­ment shut­down — found that 44 per­cent of re­spond­ents still ap­proved of their mem­ber of Con­gress. That’s the low­est rat­ing Gal­lup has ever re­cor­ded, but it is still far bet­ter than opin­ions about the in­sti­tu­tion.

And post-shut­down, the fig­ures held: Con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al hit an­oth­er re­cord low (9 per­cent) in a CBS/New York Times poll, but 46 per­cent of re­spond­ents still ap­proved of their own rep­res­ent­at­ive.

“I don’t think suc­cess in this job is en­tirely meas­ured by how many bills you in­tro­duce and how many bills you pass,” says Swal­well, whose staff is split evenly between Wash­ing­ton and Cali­for­nia. 

“Writ­ing and passing le­gis­la­tion is im­port­ant, but as a fresh­man in the minor­ity, be­ing real­ist­ic, you can be “¦ ef­fect­ive by just listen­ing to people and us­ing the fed­er­al re­sources that you have that don’t re­quire le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion to help them.”

What We're Following See More »
Twitter Bots Dominated First Debate
30 minutes ago

Twitter bots, "automated social media accounts that interact with other users," accounted for a large part of the online discussion during the first presidential debate. Bots made up 22 percent of conversation about Hillary Clinton on the social media platform, and a whopping one third of Twitter conversation about Donald Trump.

Center for Public Integrity to Spin Off Journalism Arm
34 minutes ago

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the nonprofit that published the Panama Papers earlier this year, is being spun off from its parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity. According to a statement, "CPI’s Board of Directors has decided that enabling the ICIJ to chart its own course will help both journalistic teams build on the massive impact they have had as one organization."

EPA Didn’t Warn Flint Residents Soon Enough
1 hours ago

According to a new report, the Environmental Protection Agency waited too long before informing the residents of Flint, Mich. that their water was contaminated with lead. Written by the EPA's inspector general, it places blame squarely at the foot of the agency itself, saying it had enough information by June 2015 to issue an emergency order. However, the order wasn't issued until the end of January 2016.

Trump’s Political Director Steps Down
2 hours ago

Jim Murphy, Donald Trump’s national political director, is taking "a step back" from the campaign, after being absent for several days. He cited "personal reasons," although he added he hasn't resigned.

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
12 hours ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.