The Dallas suburbs of Rep. Michael C. Burgess’ congressional district gained nearly 200,000 residents over the past decade. For the Texas Republican, that has meant more calls from people seeking his help on everything from unemployment benefits and passport applications to obtaining service medals for veterans.
Burgess, who has been in office since 2003, said constituent requests have steadily increased over the years, even before the coronavirus pandemic kicked things into overdrive.
“It is easy enough to do the math, if you go from a district with 700,000 people to a million,” he said. “It is not that they are more likely to have those problems, but they are just as likely to have those problems.”
Burgess and other House members tackle those efforts with funding from their Members’ Representational Allowance, tight budgets used to pay staff and run all operations in both district and Capitol offices. However, Congress has largely let its funds for members’ offices stagnate.
A new report released earlier this month by the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation found that members of Congress don’t have the resources needed to effectively engage with constituents in a growing country. One district the report sampled received about 48,000 messages from constituents in 2011 — which increased rapidly to 123,000 by 2017.
“Senators and Representatives have staff to help them manage now, but not nearly enough to meaningfully engage, listen to, and understand so many people, let alone integrate what they hear into comprehensive and inclusive public policy proposals,” the report stated.
In 2010, the average House member represented 710,000 people and received about $1.5 million to manage their offices. Results from the 2020 census show the average district now has more than 760,000 people, yet the amount of funds to address their requests remains the same.
Brad Fitch, CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said the pandemic forced many congressional offices to embrace new technology to better communicate with their constituents.
“In the last year, we’ve seen an explosion in demand for Congress to assist with everything from helping hospitals getting PPE to getting expatriates, at the beginning of the pandemic who were stuck overseas, back to the United States,” Fitch said.
At the same time, they continue to face long-standing issues in reaching their constituents, and vice versa, Fitch said. Congressional offices frequently operate in a bit of a bubble, having difficulty connecting with constituents across the aisle.