Wonk Time: Increase the MRA in the House?

March 15, 2012

Pivoting off Ezra Klein’s review of two new books about lobbying and Congress, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggests that the way to combat the legislature subsidy of lobbying is to pay congressional staff higher salaries:

What if every member of Congress had a, say, $20 million staff-and-research budget? What if a congressional chief of staff made $1 million per year, and what if each congressman had an army of staffers to research policy and draft bills, as opposed to a skeleton staff? The legislative subsidy would just become irrelevant. Or at least, congresspeople would be on equal footing vis-à-vis well-funded lobbyists. And the cost would be a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget — and even less compared to the social and economic cost of carveouts and tax breaks.

This raises two immediate questions:

  • What is the current staff-and-research budget of each Member of Congress? Is it anywhere near $20 million per Member? How is it determined?
  • Why doesn’t Congress simply implement Gobry’s solution? It’s not like anti-lobbyist legislation is unpopular. So what’s holding this sort of reform back?

I’ve written a bit before about the basic staffing structure in the legislative branch, so check that out if you need the lay of the land. Here I’m going to answer the two questions above. I’ll do it Q&A style, since it’s a bit complicated. I will focus on the House; the Senate is slightly different, but operates on the same principles.

Q. How do Representatives get the money to pay for staff?

A. Under law, the Member’s Representational Allowance (MRA) — a lump-sum of money that Members can spend as they see fit — is authorized and regulated by the House Committee on House Administration, as well as by law and chamber rules.

Q. How much money is in each Member’s MRA?

A. It varies. The formula for calculating an individual Member’s MRA is a lump-sum that everyone gets, plus a variable amount based on three variables: how far the Member’s district is from Washington (to scale travel costs), the cost of living in the Member’s district (to scale district-office rental costs), and the number of non-business postal addresses in the Member’s district (to scale constituent mail costs). If you would like to see the actual formula, you can find it on page 2371 of the current Statement of Disbursements of the House. That document also provides the total amount given to each Member, as well as the itemized breakdown of all expenditures by each Member in the previous quarter.

Q. So…how much money does each Member get?

A. For calendar year 2010 (technically session-year, which runs from January 3 to January 2), the median amount was about $1.5 million. At the start of the 112th Congress, H.Res.22 reduced the authorized amount by 5% for 2011 and 2012 as part of a general reduction in expense funding for House leadership, committees, and Members. So while I haven’t run the numbers for this year, it’s about in the $1.4 million range.

Q. What can the MRA be spent on?

A. In general, four categories of expenses: staff, travel, office expenses, and mail. The general guidelines is that the MRA can only be spent on official representational business. If you want the full details, check out the Members’ handbook issued by the Committee on House Administration.

Q. What proportion do Members typically spend in each category?

A. Mostly staff. Typically, you’ll see about 65-70% of the MRA spent on Washington and district staff. (Representatives are limited to 18 full-time and 4 part-time staff or interns). After that, it varies: some Members send a lot of mail to their constituents, others travel back to their district a lot.  A number of studies have examined the publicly-available data if you would like precise numbers. Here’s a recent one. And on average, about 10% of the MRA goes unspent.

Q. Unspent? I thought Representatives were underfunded and staff underpaid?

A. They may well be, but there are two issues. The first is basic accounting: Members can’t borrow money against the next session or the next Congress if they run out of their MRA, so they have to budget in a buffer. More importantly, however, there is a strong downward democratic pressure on Members to be thrifty. Constituents do not like seeing Members spend money unnecessarily, and one way to look penny-wise is to not use all the money given to you.

Q. How much do the staffers make?

A. Again, it varies. Entry level staff assistants may make less than $30k annually. The maximum staff salary in the House under the 2009 Speaker’s Pay Order is $168,411 annually. The 2010 House Compensation Study provides a good survey of different salaries for different positions in a Member’s office. For a primer on who’s who in the Member’s office, see my old post.

Q. Maximum salary? I thought Member’s could spend the MRA as they see fit?

A. Not exactly. In addition to the regulations issued by House Administration, there are other guidelines under statute and regulation. Most of them are common sense or common ethics rules: restrictions on hiring your relatives, requirements that people you pay actually do work commensurate with the pay, and so forth. Under law, the Speaker is also authorized to issue guidelines setting maximum salaries for various positions.

Q. But wait, how can all this money be spent without an appropriation? I thought the Constitution required that?

A. It does. And there is. The money authorized for the MRA by the Committee on House Administration is just that, an authorization. The actual funding is appropriated in the annual Legislative Branch Appropriations Act.

Q. How much is appropriated for the MRA?

A. In FY2012, it was $573.9 million, in P.L. 112-74, the FY12 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Q. And that covers all staff and resource expenses?

A. For Representatives’ personal offices, yes (well, mostly; see below). But that figure doesn’t include committee funding, leadership funding, or funding for administrative support offices (such as the Clerk’s Office). Nor does it include any of the funding for the Senate staff (personal or otherwise), or any of the other offices of the legislative branch (such as CBO, the Library of Congress, CRS, Capitol Police, etc.). The entire Legislative Branch Appropriations Act is about $4.3 billion annually, which sounds like a lot, until you remember that total federal outlays are about 1000 times that.

Q. So the total cost of maintaining Representatives’ personal offices is about half a billion?

A. It’s a little more than that, actually. Because that total MRA appropriation doesn’t include the government’s portion of the contributions to employee pensions and benefits. Those are appropriated separately in the Legislative Branch bill. There are also other expenses — such as the maintenance and upkeep of the physical offices in Washington — that are picked up in appropriations to other Legislative branch entities, such as the Architect of the Capitol. And it also doesn’t include the salaries of the actual Members, which runs about $76 million total (441 Members and Delegates X $174,000 annual salary + a bit more for leaders), or the government side of their pension and benefit contributions.

Q. So are staff underpaid?

A. That’s an open question. Many staffers certainly think they are. And the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch has regularly worried in committee reports accompanying the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill about losing staff to the private sector, and the need to pay staff more in order to remain competitive. Most Members certainly wish they had more staff, and more ability to pay their existing staff. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who think that congressional staff are overpaid or, in some cases, completely unnecessary. Governor Perry, for instance.

Q. So it looks like it would take about 10 or 15 times as much money to get to Gobry’s $20m/Member budget level. Thoughts?

A. First impression is that it’s political impossible. For the House alone — and again, we’re just talking about the personal office staff, not the committees or the leadership or anything else — you are talking about $8 billion. That’s almost double what we’re spending on the entire legislative branch right now.

Q. But like you said, it’s a drop in the bucket relative to total federal spending?

A. True. But it’s very, very hard to increase spending — even marginally — in the Legislative Branch.

Q. How come?

A. As noted above, constituents tend not to look kindly upon Members who vote to increase stuff that is perceived to be “for them.” This is most directly felt on Member pay. But it affects virtually all spending in the House and Senate. Members have a very difficult time casting votes to increase money that goes to themselves or their staff. Even the upkeep of the Capitol building and the surrounding complex can raise the political ire of some constituents.

Q. But the Legislative Branch bill gets passed each year, no?

A. Indeed, it does. But it also has historically come to the floor under a closed rule, in order to prevent amendments being offered that would slash things like staff pay. (In recent years, almost all appropriations bills have come to the floor under closed rules. That, however, is a new trend. Twenty years ago, typically on the Leg Branch bill would come to the floor closed). The basic rule of thumb is this: if a vote is going to be taken on the floor that seeks to cut Member pay, or Hill staff salaries, that vote is going to pass. Regardless of personal feelings, Members just feel that they cannot cast votes against those kinds of amendments. And there are always plenty of Members with strong incentives to propose such amendments. Thus, a closed rule is the only safe way to go.

Q. So how do they ever increase Member or staff pay?

A. Two ways, typically. One is the way mentioned above: keep increases in the overall spending and the staff spending in the Legislative Branch bill very modest — often lower than most or all other appropriations bills — and then bring it to the floor under a closed rule to prevent any amendments that seek to cut pay. The other way is the method used with Member pay: put in place a system of cost-of-living increases — increases that can never be higher than the increases for general federal workers — which automatically go into effect unless they are specifically denied. Then prevent denial votes or amendments from coming to the floor, except in cases when there is genuine consensus to deny.

Q. So what are the prospects for an increase in Member staff resources?

A. I don’t like to make strong predictions of this sort, but I’d say in the near term: zero.

Q. But is it a good idea in theory?

A. Well, again, that depends on your axiomatic values. Personally, I’d like to see legislative branch staffing beefed up a bit, but that’s mostly because I see it not only as a general good for a legislature, but also as a relative good for a legislature vis a vis the executive. As I’ve written before (here and here), information production and dissemination is a serious weapon the branches can use against each other in political battles, and in my view, the legislature could use a more even balance with the President right now.

Q. What other considerations are there?

A. One is how you feel about where to distribute resources in the House. Right now, Member offices spend a lot of their resources dealing with constituent casework. If resources for Member offices were expanded, Members could arguably assign more staff to policy work, which might be beneficial if you believe the Member offices should be carrying a larger load of the policy development. But institutionally, the rules of the House and the allocation of resources right now all point toward the committee system having the lion’s share of the load for policy development. So it might make more sense to strengthen the resources of the committees. In any case, from a political point of view, a move to double or ten-fold increase the resources of the Members’ offices would likely consider increasing the resources of the committees as well, I would think.

Another issue is the leadership. Unlike Member or committee resources, leadership resources have grown dramatically over the past 20 years, and have altered the balance of informational power between backbenchers and leaders. That’s one thing that isn’t raised by Ezra’s review of lobbying; the leadership has many of the same incentives for legislative subsidy that lobbyist do: they provide information to assist backbenchers, and backbenchers employ that information on issues that they can’t spend their valuable time or resources for independent research. So increasing the staff and research budgets of the Members’ offices theoretically weakens the leadership’s ability to dominate backbenchers via information control. Which obviously muddies the politics.

Q. You mentioned committee funds. How does that work?

A. Oh, geez. Maybe next week.

Previous “Q&A” style posts

March 5, 2012 — Democratic Appropriations Subcommittee Assignment in the House.

March 2, 2012 — Filling the tree in the Senate.

December 15, 2011 — Rule Layover Waivers in the House.

December 5, 2011 — How a bill becomes a law. Literally.

November 29, 2011 — The other caucuses. The ones in Congress.


3 Responses to Wonk Time: Increase the MRA in the House?

  1. […] Gobry’s suggestion that we increase Members’ staff and office budgets, I wrote a primer on how the Member’s Representational Allowance works in the House. Today, my goal is to offer the companion primer, on how committee funding works in […]

  2. Perks | Matt Glassman on March 29, 2012 at 9:08 am

    […] on travel and/or franked mail is disclosed. Second, Members now have personal accounts (under the MRA system) from which all of their expenses are drawn. You can view the allowed and prohibited uses of the […]

  3. On Writing your Congressman | Matt Glassman on April 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    […] offices since 1982), the prospects for a significant future increase — namely the proposition of a substantial increase in the Representatives’ MRAs or the Senators’ SOPOEA — seem quite dim. […]

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