Burgess said he limits the glossy mailers he sends out and has focused on retaining staff who conduct constituent work, including staff with him when he was first elected to Congress and when his district took on new communities after redistricting in 2000 and 2010, adding about 50,000 constituents each time.
His district now has about 940,000 constituents, but for years he has received roughly $1.5 million each fiscal year for all district operations.
Constituency requests spiked during the first few months of the pandemic, Burgess said, and his staff went “all hands on deck.” People called his office wanting to secure unemployment benefits, tap health care services and obtain passports, among other things.
“It did take a lot of work to get everyone where they needed to be and the help they needed,” Burgess said. “It was a little startling, March and April, of last year when the first couple of months hit and there were so many people and so many people who needed help.”
The Members’ Representational Allowance is used to run all operations, including member and staff travel, technology-related expenses, and other overhead for Capitol Hill and district offices.
That budget didn’t increase to meet the explosion of demand during the pandemic as dozens more people called every day. In the offices of Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, people called seeking help on everything from Social Security payments to obtaining loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We pride ourselves on getting back to everybody, but when each caseworker has 40 people that are calling in every day, no human being can possibly keep up with that,” Ryan said.
Earlier this year, Ryan, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, shepherded through legislation to bump members’ office budgets up by $134 million to almost $775 million — or roughly another $300,000 for the average congressional office.
The funding bill contains the largest-ever appropriation for members’ offices, after hitting a peak in the 2010 fiscal year at $660 million. Since then, appropriations were cut for several years and increases have been by single digits, frequently falling behind inflation as the country has grown. Those allowances vary based on factors like distance from Washington and local business prices — but not population changes over the decade.
The bill, which passed the House in July and awaits Senate action, also includes measures like a new diversity initiative and funds for a centralized translation service lawmakers can use to address the growth of cultures and languages reflected in recent years. Those are similar to recommendations made last year by the House Modernization of Congress Committee.