This post was originally published as a series of three blog posts on legbranch.com.
Members of Congress recently finished their summer recess, returning from campaigning in their districts to the hard, humidity-drenched work of legislating in Washington. Specifically, as our colleague Molly Reynolds recently wrote, they are up against pressing deadlines to pass spending legislation before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. As per usual, it’s looking most likely that Congress will engage in some form of can-kicking, rather than seeing through the “normal” appropriations process that more and more looks like an unmanageable ideal. Do our legislature’s consistent shortcomings in this core task reflect inadequate institutional capacity?
In order to think clearly about legislative capacity or the lack thereof, we need to start with a clear picture of Congress’s resources today. One of the most obvious places to start is with a look at congressional spending: what exactly do the House and Senate spend their money on? The data needed to answer this question, describing the spending done by each chamber on a line item basis, has been publicly available for several years, thanks to the Sunlight Foundation, but to there has been little recent analysis of it. In this post we will offer a comprehensive look at patterns apparent in the House Statement of Disbursements, focusing on 2015.
Total spending in the House for 2015 was $1.05 billion—excluding member salaries, which at $174,000 per year amount to around $75 million. Of that amount, $194.2 million was categorized as “Personnel Benefits”—overwhelmingly contributions to employee pensions and to the staff student loan repayment program. Ideally, we would want to apportion those personnel costs proportional to the offices that employ the relevant staff, but data formatting issues make doing so a daunting project we do not take up today.
The remaining $859.3 million is spending divided between members’ personal offices, various miscellaneous administrative offices, committees, and leadership as follows:
Amongst committees, Appropriations was easily the highest spender, spending $20,933,871, or more than double the second highest spending House standing committee, Energy & Commerce. The Rules, Small Business, and Ethics committees were the three lowest spenders, each coming in between $2.4M – $2.9M. Median committee spending was just over $6M.
Members’ personal offices are each given a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) according to a set formula taking into account the member’s home district’s distance from DC, cost of office space in the member’s home district, and the number of constituent addresses in the home district. Most members spend nearly their full MRA (set at least $1.2 million for every office—see p. 2526); the five personal offices with the highest spending are thus those with some of the highest MRAs (and the closest to 100% spent).
|Pedro R. Pierluisi (D – Puerto Rico)||$1,592,791|
|Carolyn B. Maloney (D – NY)||$1,323,450|
|Tom McClintock (R – CA)||$1,304,974|
|Jerrold Nadler (D – NY)||$1,287,171|
|Ryan K. Zinke (R – MT)||$1,282,276|
The five personal offices with the lowest spending are:
|Maxine Waters (D – CA)||$812,420|
|Daniel Webster (R – FL)||$877,340|
|Mark Sanford (R – SC)||$927,623|
|Barbara Comstock (R – VA)||$957,169|
|Frank Pallone, Jr. (R – NJ)||$959,966|
Some of these members are making a point to spend far less than their full MRA, with their surplus allocated toward deficit reduction. For example, Sanford and Webster have both drawn attention to their offices’ frugality. Others on the low spending end may be doing the same, or it is possible that their reporting of their 2015 spending is delayed or problematic for some reason, which would affect the data we are working with.
There is a short and unsurprising answer: mostly, it spends on staff. Personnel expenses amount to more than three-quarters of House disbursements.
The portion that goes to personnel varies by the type of office:
|Category of Offices||Percentage|
|Total across all offices||76.2%|
“Other” devotes a significantly lower portion to personnel because it includes most of the overhead (including facilities) needed to run a large organization.
Interesting patterns of spending become clearer at the lower level of individual offices.
Committees spent roughly 94% of their money on personnel compensation. The remaining 6% of spending was distributed amongst the remaining categories in roughly equal shares, with other services spending representing a slightly higher share.
The Appropriations committee, however, significantly deviates from that pattern:
The Appropriations committee, like the aggregate committee spending, devoted the vast majority of its money to personnel compensation—just over 92%. But it spent a disproportionate part of the remainder on “other services.” While this category is normally relatively low and varied, composed of miscellaneous technical expenses, the Appropriations committee directs a nontrivial sum ($1 million, or 5% of the committee’s 2015 expenditures) toward “consultant contract services.”
While admittedly on the margins, it’s clear that individual office expenditure levels (in particular amongst the committees) may vary according to particular office duties, and as such provide a useful tool in probing congressional capacity and behavior.
Spending differences between parties
Now, to get around to the question we all love to ask these days: do the blues and the reds act differently when it comes to congressional spending? Well, when it comes to House members’ 2015 spending, the answer seems to be, “not really.”
On average, Democrats’ personal offices spent $1.17 million, and Republicans’ personal offices spent $1.14 million. Here is a graph of the full spending distribution:
The slight Democratic spending edge is driven by Democratic offices’ slightly higher rate of using their Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA). Democrats spend, on average, 92.6% of their MRA, compared to 91.1% for Republicans.
Nothing too dramatic here. To get very fine-grained, the distribution of Democrats has a more textbook negative skew, whereas the Republican mean resides on a somewhat elongated plateau.
We looked to see whether total spending or percentage of MRA used varied in interesting ways between committee chairs, ranking members, and normal members of both parties, but nothing jumps out: ranking members and committee chairs on average spent $5,800, or 0.008%, less than their relatively junior colleagues. This difference was primarily driven by ranking member spending: while committee chairs outspent other Republicans by roughly $15,500, or 1.6% of MRA, ranking members were outspent by other Democrats by roughly $31,000, or 2.0% of MRA.
In coming months, we hope to dig deeper to find less obvious patterns, as well as turning our attention to the Sunlight Foundation’s Senate data.
 In order to do this analysis, we cleaned the data in Sunlight’s summary reports in various ways. Where necessary, we collapsed differently labeled entries that referred to the same office into a single category. We also removed personal office records for members who didn’t serve for the full year—or, more precisely, who didn’t have expenditures from all four quarters. Our analysis is based on sum totals obtained by manually combining quarterly totals (which avoids certain problems introduced by relying on the “YTD” column computed by Sunlight).