Eight of the top 10 spenders of taxpayer funds in the House of Representatives this year are Republicans, as GOP lawmakers spend disproportionate amounts of their office budgets on mass mailings ahead of the elections.
A new LegiStorm analysis of how members of the House spend their budgets reveals a stark party difference in the use of printing costs and "franked mail" — mass mailings paid for with taxpayer dollars. The numbers suggest that Republicans spend relatively more money and effort trying to convince constituents that they are doing an effective job in Congress, and relatively less money on staff to do legislative and constituent work.
The top-spending Republican, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who holds a vulnerable seat against an election challenge by a former Democratic member of Congress, plowed through more than 55% of his annual budget in the first six months of the year. In doing so, he spent 12.5% of his expenses for printing and mailing, versus a House average of 4.7%.
But Hurd's $88,000 in spending on franked mail and reproduction this year comes nowhere close to the more than $253,000, or 41% of total expenses, paid by Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), who also holds a vulnerable seat. That's more than 14 times what an average Democrat spent on such expenses. Blum spent 50% more money on this category than the next highest spender, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
The franked mail differences is one trend that is evident with a new interactive information resource that LegiStorm is making available for the first time to analyze House spending. The new resource allows users to sort by spending category and compare expenses against the authorized budget.
The data shows that some frugal members are able to refund substantial portions of their budgets to the U.S. Treasury while others come perilously close to overspending their budgets. Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) made it through 2015 with less than $30 to spare in his budget of $1.25 million.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) played it even closer in 2012, spending all but $7.18 of his $1.37 million budget. That's less than $1 for every $100,000 that he managed to conserve.
But the fiscal balancing acts of those members of Congress don't compare with what former Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), now a lobbyist, managed to accomplish in 2010. He finished the year having spent exactly 100% of his budget — spending even the very last penny.
Members have some discretion in how they report expenses, allowing them to shift some expenses if need be from one year to the next. Sometimes top staffers will bear the brunt of budget miscalculations, having to take temporary pay cuts to meet budget numbers, only to see their pay temporarily raised in the new year to compensate.
Still, those members pushing the limits do so at their own potential financial peril. Any amount overspent must be paid back out of the lawmaker's own pocket. The flirtation with budget limits is particularly dangerous because the data shows that member offices do not necessarily have tight controls over what is spent, with millions of dollars in congressional expenses reported as many as several years after they were incurred.
For example, 5.43 percent of 2013 expenses were reported in a future year. Even some 2013 expenses were first reported by members earlier this year — three years late. Dozens of members report at least 10 percent of their expenses in a year after they were supposed to be reported.
Six of the top 10 spenders last year were Republicans. In general, however, Democrats spend somewhat more of their budgets each year than Republicans. Last year, Republicans had 5 percent of their office budgets left over on average, with Democrats having only 3 percent.
The most frugal members of the House come nowhere close to their budget limits. Two members last year finished the year with less than 70 percent of their office totals spent. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) had the lowest spending, followed closely by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.). They each will be returning close to $400,000 to the Treasury unless an unusual number of expenses comes in after now.
The biggest difference between how the two parties spent their office budgets appears to involve franked mail and printing costs. Although only five of the 10 top spenders in this category this year are members of the GOP, Republicans spent on average 50 percent more than Democrats on these expenses.
The differences are greater in years prior. From available data in 2010–2016, Democrats spent only 3.4 percent of their budgets on printing and mailing whereas Republicans spent 5.9 percent of their budget.
The Republican-Democratic difference in printing and mailing costs is not just during election years. For example, Blum, the top spender on this category for this year, spent a similarly outsized proportion last year as well, with 37 percent of his total spending going for this purpose.
For Blum, this spending category squeezed out personnel expenses, which were lower for Blum than any other House member both this year and last. Last year he was the only member of Congress who served the whole year and spent less than half his budget on personnel. The top personnel spender last year, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) outspent him more than two to one on employees, with more than 86 percent of her budget going for that purpose.
Spending on printing and mailing has been a hot-button ethics issue over the years given the potential for how such spending could dovetail nicely with campaign advertising. In fact, the Committee on House Administration tightly monitors the language used in such mailings, and House rules prohibit mailings close to the election.
By contrast 24 of the top 25 spenders last year on rent, communications and utilities were Democrats. Since Democrats control the vast majority of urban districts, their district offices are far more likely to incur higher downtown rents.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), whose district includes John F. Kennedy International Airport, spent $231,901 on this expense category despite having only two district offices. He spent $40,000 more than the next highest spender, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who represents an area of Northern California that is not as pricey as Silicon Valley but has three offices in reasonably pricey locales.