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'Shrugged off and ignored': Lawmakers disagree on how to ease pain of election churn

Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

Chuck Edwards decided to try to meet his constituents where they’re at when he came to Congress earlier this year. Literally.

The North Carolina Republican took the unusual step of creating a mobile office, a van that travels around the state’s 11th District to help with veterans and Social Security issues. Questions about passports, immigration or the IRS? Staffers in the van field those too.

It’s the kind of constituent casework that is a basic function of any congressional office, and the roaming van made sense in his rural district.

But it was also a way to make up for lost time after his predecessor, embattled former Rep. Madison Cawthorn, declined to give him access to any constituent case files after Edwards beat him in a closely fought primary.

“Effectively, we started out with zero caseload,” Edwards recalled in an interview this month, although Cawthorn has contested his account. “We had no idea what cases he had been working on, or the status of any of those cases. And worse over, the folks that thought they had a case being worked on were unaware that their case had essentially been dropped.”

Despite the complication, Edwards said his office got up to speed thanks to the van and a public call for people with open cases to contact his office. But the accusation exposed a long-standing problem of rocky transitions, with constituents caught in the middle. And lawmakers haven’t agreed on how to fix it.

 

Cawthorn wasn’t breaking any rules by not sharing casework, most of which is handled by staff in district offices. Lawmakers aren’t required to share their casework files with their successors before departing. Last Congress, a total of 39 outgoing members did not share such data with their successors, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Stephanie Bice, who leads the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee.

“Member offices turn over, but casework doesn’t. And then the constituent is left having to start completely over with a new office, and they feel like they’re just getting shrugged off and ignored by Congress,” said J.D. Rackey, director of legislative studies at the Sunwater Institute and a former staffer on the now-defunct House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

The select committee, or ModCom, which disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress, looked to smooth out those transitions and made a series of recommendations to address the issue.

In the 116th Congress, a ModCom recommendation, based on an existing Senate program for new members, was implemented to create a transition aide, whose salary is paid by the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, to help members-elect set up their Washington offices.

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