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
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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.

GOOD OF­FENSE

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.

GOOD DE­FENSE

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.”

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