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Press Release


No Belt-Tightening Here: House Members' Office Spending Breaks Half Billion-Dollar Mark; 20% Jump in 4 Years

For Immediate Release May 21, 2007
Pete Sepp, (703) 683-5700

(Alexandria, VA) -- The persistence of red ink in the federal budget didn't deter most House Members from spending more on red-ink pens, travel, computers, and other items to run their own Capitol Hill and district offices, according to a long-awaited study from the National Taxpayers Union (NTU). A comprehensive analysis by NTU, the only one of its kind, provides detailed comparative figures on individual lawmakers and reveals that overall House office expenses exceeded $525 million in 2005 -- representing a 20 percent rise from the year 2001.

"Anyone who wonders why Congress can't seem to get a grip on wasteful spending in the federal budget should examine House Members' careless handling of their own office budgets," said NTU Senior Counselor and project manager David Keating. "Not only have House offices largely failed to do any belt-tightening during a time of deficits, their reporting methods are fraught with errors and 'adjustments' made as much as two years after the fact."

It is for the latter reason that NTU's confidence in the reliability of House data could only be extended to calendar years 2005 and prior. In the first half of 2006 alone, every lawmaker reported at least one adjustment to their 2005 office expense data, adding up to $27.4 million for the whole House.

Perhaps more egregious, 36 House Members' records for postage contained errors, most of them for reporting more expenditures on postage for mass mailings than for all postage combined. "This is mathematically impossible," Keating noted, "leaving taxpayers to wonder if the inaccurate reports are being filed to avoid disclosure." Study findings include:

  • House Members spent $525.01 million on their offices in 2005, a 4.7 percent rise compared to 2004. However, since 2001, the overall total has risen 19.8 percent (from $438.3 million). The average Representative's office outlay was roughly $1.2 million in 2005, although each office is issued a different "Members' Representational Allowance" (MRA) based on factors such as population within the district, prevailing rents, and the district's distance from Washington, DC.
  • Unlike previous years, NTU found no instances of lawmakers in 2005 who exceeded their MRAs, but a total of 74 House Members did spend at least 99 percent of their allotments. The average Representative consumed 94.4 percent of his or her MRA in 2005, a figure that has fluctuated within just a few percentage- points since 2002.
  • The top-ranked office spender, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT), used all but $375 of his $1.3 million allowance. The lowest-ranked spender, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), did without $518,036 of his MRA (which came to $1.2 million). Had every Congressman been as frugal as Goode, House office spending would have fallen by $205.4 million that year.
  • The House spent $22.3 million on franked mail postage for 2005, over 85 percent of which (subject to the data inconsistencies above) went to mass mailings of 500 or more identical pieces. This is barely higher than 2004's franking outlay of $21.7 million, in spite of significant mailing "blackout" periods that apply during election years.
  • Although House franking costs peaked more than 15 years ago, new technologies (such as segmented mailing lists on CD-ROM) allow House Members to get more bang for their mass mailing buck. Even so, the House still managed to spend nearly half as much on franking during the 2003-2004 election cycle as challengers did on their entire general election campaigns over that period.
  • In 1999 the House abolished its longstanding limits on franked mail spending, which, although generous compared to the Senate's, helped to curb a perk that gave incumbent lawmakers an unfair political advantage. In 2005 nearly two dozen Representatives spent more than 1999's postage limit of 42 cents per district address. The highest spender by this measurement, Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-NY), shelled out 60.2 cents per address.

The NTU data also shed light on the day-to-day management and priorities of House offices. For an average lawmaker's MRA usage, 71.1 percent went to salaries, 7.5 percent to district office rent, communications, and utilities, 7.5 percent to equipment and supply purchases, 4.2 percent to postage, 4.1 percent to printing, 4.1 percent to travel, and the remainder to miscellaneous services and costs. This figure does not include salaries for Representatives, pensions for Members or staff, Committee costs, or funds for Legislative Branch agencies.

Although there were exceptions to the rule, the average Republican generally spent less (92.8 percent of the MRA) to run his or her office in 2005 than the average Democrat (95.9 percent of the MRA). However, partisan differences were sharper on the ends of the scale. Of the 50 top office spenders (on a percentage- of-MRA-spent basis), 37 were Democrats. Of the 50 most frugal office spenders, 38 were Republicans. In one category -- spending on franked mail postage -- Republicans represented 29 of the top 50 (when adjusted to cost per address).

NTU also compared scores on its annual Rating of Congress to determine if there was any link between how Members spend on their offices and how they vote on the rest of the federal budget. The NTU Rating uses every roll call vote affecting fiscal issues (a total of 201 House votes in 2005). The 50 biggest office spenders had an average score of 27 percent on the NTU Rating, while the 50 biggest office savers posted an average of 51 percent.

In addition to better-quality disclosure (which ought to apply to the Senate as well) for franked mail and office expenses, Keating suggested that the current political and economic environment ought to convince Congress to reform other perks, like its overly generous pension plan. He further recommended that the current House Commission on Mailing Standards be charged with keeping accurate records of each mass mailing, and that the House adopt the kind of Member-by-Member restrictive dollar limits that apply to the Senate. Such a change could easily save $20 million per Congress.

"Issues like Congressional office expenses and perks matter to the taxpaying public because people can relate these expenditures to their own daily working lives," Keating concluded. "Instead of passing complex ethics reform bills that could hamstring citizens who want to engage Congress, lawmakers should be working for tighter limits on perks, and more professional management of their own taxpayer-funded allowances."

NTU, a non-profit, non-partisan organization with 362,000 members, works for lower taxes and smaller government at all levels. The group has long been involved in Congressional reform issues, and conducted the first-ever detailed examinations of Congressional franked mail and office expenses in the 1990s. Note: A Member-by-Member analysis of House office expenses and franked mail costs for 2002-2005 is available online at www.ntu.org.

 

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