The Challenges of the District Office Take Center Stage Before House Panel
WASHINGTON — Though much of what America reads, sees and hears about the federal government emanates from the nation’s Capitol, the reality is it’s members’ district offices that are at the front lines, day in and day out, of helping constituents back home with local problems and issues or with trying to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
Put simply, elected officials couldn’t do the work that keeps them in office without the staff maintaining offices hundreds and even thousands of miles from Capitol Hill.
But as became plain at a recent hearing held by the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, multiple challenges confront the staffers carrying out that work, some of them institutional, some of them a matter of logistics or simple dollars and cents.
Not only do these realities hamper the handling of constituent casework — work that can be complex on the best of days — it also makes it harder for even highly skilled members and managers to hang on to experienced staff.
And never have these challenges been more evident than during the coronavirus pandemic, when in addition to their normal volume of constituent casework, district office staffers were fielding questions about pandemic assistance for families and workers and relief funding for small local businesses desperate to stay afloat.
At the same time, district offices coast-to-coast were also dealing with the emergency supply needs for their first responders and hospitals, including making sure they had sufficient personal protective equipment.
“There’s no question that much of the work related to the pandemic fell on the shoulders of district staff,” said George Hadijski, director of congressional programming at the Congressional Management Foundation, in his testimony at the hearing.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard the caseload requests doubled in 2020 and 2021, almost all of that groundswell attributable to the pandemic,” he said.
“Not surprisingly, we found the members whose staff dealt best with this situation were those that were well-managed and had the best dialogue between their [Washington], D.C., and district offices,” he said.
Though the pandemic now appears to be waning, a new challenge looms on the horizon. With 31 Democrats and 16 Republicans leaving the House this year — and scores of burned out staffers looking to do the same — there’s rarely been more of a concern over the loss of institutional knowledge in the field.
Dollars and Caps
Chief among the hobgoblins that come up during any discussion of the congressional staffing is the Members’ Representational Allowance, the yearly budget that covers everything in a member’s office other than his or her personal salary.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the MRA was first authorized in 1996, and placed under the authority of the House Administration Committee. The appropriation to fund the allowance and support members’ congressional duties and responsibilities peaked in fiscal year 2010 at $660 million.
The overall size of the appropriation has declined ever since, with a corresponding reduction in the amount of funding provided to each member.
In fiscal year 2021, the House requested $672 million for the allowance, but the reported bill only contained $640 million.
In addition to providing funds for representatives to hire staff, buy office supplies and rent district offices in the members’ home states, the regulation that controls the spending also caps the number of staff members a representative can have.
Hadijski, who works for a nonpartisan nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping members deal with evolving problems, said members could, in theory, hire temp agency personnel to deal with the pandemic-related surge of activity in their offices, but the way the rules are written, those part-timers are counted toward the staff ceiling cap.
“It would make sense to examine a carve-out to exempt temp agency staff during times of crisis,” Hadijski told the committee.
In fact, the Congressional Management Foundation has long been an advocate for lifting the staff ceiling entirely and allowing members to hire based on their office needs. A recent report from the Office of the Inspector General also recommended its eventual removal.
“What I would recommend is having an interim measure that would exempt offices in times of crisis and provide for additional temporary employees during times of need,” Hadijski said. “This would alleviate the strains placed on the district staff at times when phones may be ringing off the hook with requests for assistance.
“This crisis time period could still have limits, as it could be predicated on a formal determination by leadership or the chair and ranking member of the House Administration Committee,” he said.
The foundation has also advocated in the past for an exemption to the staff ceiling to hire more people who fall under the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination protections.
“This may not be an easy task, as it may require a statutory change, but it could be worthwhile for the institution and a win-win situation for everyone,” he said.
Another issue that continues to prove a significant challenger to the day-to-day operation of district offices is access to mobile and broadband internet.
“The fact is there are many parts of the country that still lack reliable high-speed mobile and broadband internet access, and that significantly hinders representation, especially in large districts and those far from Washington, D.C., where it is difficult to reach all constituents physically,” Hadijski said.
“During a crisis, like the pandemic, where you have to shut down travel and in-person meetings, you leave a lot of Americans without access to necessary emergency information and services,” he added.
But broadband access wasn’t the only technology-related problem staffers cited during their appearances before the select committee.
Sarah Youngdahl, district director for Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn., said one of her frustrations is a lack of agreement among federal agencies and other partners on the use of digital signatures.
One of the frustrations is a lack of agreement among federal agencies and other partners on the use of digital signatures.
—Sarah Youngdahl, district director for Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn.
With the pandemic, Youngdahl said, there was an understandable uptick in remote and alternate office work for district office workers and their federal agency partners.
“While some accommodations were implemented, other issues were more complex and resulted in a slower response time,” she said. “One suggestion to initiate quicker response times was to have digital signatures. This would eliminate the time-consuming mailing, printing and returning of agency-required privacy forms.
“However, we quickly found that numerous agencies do not accept the digital format,” Youngdahl said. “So here you had a simple technology that could help constituents, and we were told it was not feasible due to the limitations placed on it by agencies.”
Hadijski shared these sentiments, saying more should be done to digitize casework.
“The House has already started to digitize forms and processes with the finance office, and I believe many of those principles can apply to casework and should be examined,” he said.
“Currently, congressional staff are spending significant amounts of time entering information into forms and seeking privacy releases from constituents. Each agency has its own processes and requirements. Having some type of portal, either created by the executive branch or by the House where constituents could securely provide their information and provide digital signatures, has the possibility to free up staff to do the more substantive work of engagement with the executive branch agencies and bringing successful casework results to constituents,” he said.
Technical barriers to quickly serving constituents were also on the mind of Danielle Radovich Piper, chief of staff to Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
“Over the years our district office has grappled with the speed at which our office accesses and transmits electronic information,” Piper said. “We tried many fixes to the problem — from rewiring our office to purchasing our own server — neither of which alleviated the problem.
“The main issue is the House firewall and the need for data to travel to and from [Washington], D.C., with every click, thus causing a slow network resulting in lost staff time and less productivity,” she said.
“One solution is to allow offices to use a secure cloud system, thus removing the obstacle of the time it takes for data to travel back and forth,” she offered.
“One solution is to allow offices to use a secure cloud system, thus removing the obstacle of the time it takes for data to travel back and forth.”
—Danielle Radovich Piper, chief of staff to Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
Piper said another challenge for district offices, and this one closer to Hadijski’s concerns, is the lack of access to Wi-Fi.
“Since the House does not support Wi-Fi in district offices, we resort to workarounds such as the use of hot spots,” she said. “As we all experienced with the pandemic, having access to Wi-Fi is critical for a fully functioning office and would provide staff more flexibility to be more mobile within the office workspace.”
Piper also made note of the fact that many federal agencies have not yet “gone digital” and some even still use fax machines for communications.
“Eliminating the use of the fax across all agencies is another example of something that would greatly increase the productivity of the casework team and their ability to serve constituents in a timely manner.”
Keeping Distant Staff Happy
Beyond the ability to do their work, district staffers said they also encounter hurdles when it comes to taking advantage of career development opportunities and other perks that are part and parcel of the [Washington], D.C., office experience.
“Many times, amenities offered to [Washington], D.C., employees are simply not available to district staff,” Youngdahl said, offering access to a fitness center or child care as examples.
“While these are easily implemented on Capitol Hill, they would be equally appreciated and used by district staffers,” she said. “While professional development opportunities and contacts with groups do sometimes filter down to the district staff, they often do so slowly.
“These connections not only assist staff in their personal and professional lives, but they broaden their outreach,” she said.
With security very much on staffers’ minds after the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol, Hadijski suggested it may be time for the House Administration Committee to work with the House Sergeant at Arms to see if the process for security expenses can be reformed.
“Currently, many expenses are paid for from the MRA, forcing members to weigh budgetary constraints and needs against the security of their staff,” he said.
“Based on past incidents and events, the House Administration Committee previously took steps to authorize central funding for certain district office expenses through consultation with experts such as the Sergeant at Arms,” he said.
“I would recommend a process through which security needs are examined and recommended by the Sergeant at Arms and entirely paid through a centralized funding mechanism with the appropriate oversight and signoff by the committee,” he continued.
“I would recommend a process through which security needs are examined and recommended by the Sergeant at Arms and entirely paid through a centralized funding mechanism with the appropriate oversight and signoff by the committee.”
—George Hadijski, director of congressional programming at the Congressional Management Foundation
“If a member office wanted to go beyond what was recommended by the security experts, this process could still allow member offices to pay for those expenses from the MRA with some process for final approval, either at Sergeant at Arms or committee. This solution would minimize having the member weigh security decisions against other factors within the overall MRA budget,” he said.
On a related note, Hadijski suggested it may be high time to focus particular attention on enhanced security protocol education and best practices for freshman offices.
“The Sergeant at Arms provides helpful guidance in the manuals they provide offices. However, in many instances freshman offices have new district staff who may never have dealt with groups of protesters or with angry or threatening constituents or the extra security that may be necessary at official events,” he said.
“I would also recommend some additional educational handholding and enhanced protocols focused on new staff as a whole, but particularly in freshman offices,” he said.
Another thing very much on the minds of those appearing before the committee was how office transitions take place — particularly when a freshman representative is setting up their first district offices.
“Currently members and the House are not allowed to expend any funds for incoming members’ new district offices until the Congress begins. In contrast, in Washington outgoing members of Congress are required to vacate their offices in December so that they can be refurbished in time for the new Congress in January,” Hadijski said.
“The result is that members get the keys to their [Washington], D.C., offices, which are fully operational on swearing-in day, but district offices could take up to two months to be fully operational with full internet services and necessary security,” he said.
“This is especially important every 10 years, after redistricting, when significant changes to district lines require members to move district offices,” Hadijski continued. “After the last decennial redistricting in Pennsylvania, nearly every member of the delegation maintained a district office outside of their new district lines. This situation is likely to repeat itself after the 2022 elections.
“I would recommend the House be allowed to, at the direction of the incoming members, pay for certain components or installations to accelerate the establishment of district offices,” he said. “It may require the House to engage in short-term leases to access the properties prior to swearing-in day. And I’m sure this would be a challenge for institutional offices. However, this would create a degree of parity between district offices and the [Washington], D.C., offices so that members are fully operational on Jan. 3.”
Sarah Youngdahl also had concerns about member transitions.
“What we found was that transitioning constituent casework was more difficult than initially anticipated,” she said. “Inquiries filed by the departing office became lost or delayed in processing at the federal agency when the original office was no longer a proper contact.
“For many constituents, recreating a previously filed inquiry delayed the receipt of Social Security or veteran benefits. While understanding the need for separation of districts, having immediate access to casework and regional contacts for the federal agencies would allow staff to be better equipped to help new constituents,” she said.
“These challenges when opening an office would be alleviated with more communication and direct outreach from knowledgeable established House staff from the beginning of the office,” Youngdahl said.
After the hearing, committee co-Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., told The Well News, “There were things where we knew that there were opportunities for improvement,” but the staffers who testified, “put a lot of meat on the bone.”
“Every member has gone through a transition and the challenge of getting their office set up, but hearing that for some it took two months for them to get technology wired into their district offices was pretty eye-opening,” he said.
“Once you take the oath of office, you’re kind of on the hook to serve your constituents,” he added. “So, as I said during the hearing, maybe we’ve got to think about some sort of ready-on-day-one kind of deal.
“That way, the day you take office, you’re actually ready to move in,” he said.
Kilmer appeared particularly moved by the experience of Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams, who is the new representative in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, following the death of longtime congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
Williams told the committee that when she took office she initially had trouble locating constituents’ case files and when she sought advice, was told to reach out to the previous holder of her seat.
When she explained that the representative had died, she was told to reach out to his wife. The only problem was, Rep. Lewis’ wife, Lillian, had predeceased him.
“Her experience showed that we really need to look at how casework gets handed off at the end of someone’s tenure and the beginning of someone else’s,” Kilmer said.
“The challenges of our constituents should be the challenges of our district, not the challenge of the individual member of Congress,” he said. “And God forbid a member passes away.
“I thought Rep. Williams’ story was pretty compelling, and you know, it goes back to one of the core concepts of our committee, which is making Congress work better for the American people. Part of that mission is to make sure that from day one members of Congress and their teams are able to serve constituents,” Kilmer said.
“I thought Rep. Williams’ story was pretty compelling, and you know, it goes back to one of the core concepts of our committee, which is making Congress work better for the American people. Part of that mission is to make sure that from day one members of Congress and their teams are able to serve constituents.”
—Modernization Committee co-Chairman Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., in an interview with The Well News
“That’s the important point,” he added with emphasis. “It’s not that the things we’re talking about are a pain in the butt for members or their staff, it’s that these things inhibit their ability to serve their constituents.
“I mean, if you don’t have a phone, how can your constituents call you for help?” he said.
Kilmer went on to talk about some of the issues raised by Piper and Youngdahl.
“The House does not currently support Wi-Fi in district offices, and on one level that’s understandable given concerns around cybersecurity,” he said. “On the other hand, I think it’s a pretty fair expectation for a fully functioning office in the year 2022 to have technology that meets the needs of workers. So we’re looking at doing a pilot program to figure out how to address that issue.
“The other thing the committee has focused a fair amount on since we were established is recruitment, retention, diversity and development of staff,” Kilmer continued. “Part of that, obviously, is providing more professional development opportunities to staff and encouraging that those opportunities get extended to district staff.
“The chief administrative officer’s new Congressional Staff Academy has developed training opportunities specifically to support district staff, and that’s something, frankly, that the Modernization Committee has really been encouraging,” he said.
Kilmer was asked, given what he’d heard at the hearing, what kind of program he’d like to see in place before 47 new members begin to set up their first district offices.
“That’s a fair question,” he said. “But it’s a little premature for me to answer it given that our committee hasn’t passed any recommendations based on what we heard at the hearing.
“Having said that, I think there are some recommendations we can make around casework and making sure that there’s a smooth transition for new members coming in so that they can pick up their predecessor’s casework portfolio.
“Again, this is subject to our committee members saying, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ But I think there may be some opportunity to make a recommendation that would fit under the broad headline of ‘Ready-On-Day-One.’
“In the last Congress, we made a recommendation that members be allowed to hire a transition staffer so that when a new member is going through orientation and setting up their office, someone can get paid to take care of getting the office in order.
“Prior to that, you either had someone either working for nothing or they were getting paid by the campaign — and not everybody has any money left after a campaign. So in those cases you were asking staff to set up your office without any compensation,” Kilmer said.
“That changed because of a recommendation that we made,” he continued. “And I think if you talk to this year’s freshmen that they would say, that was a big deal for us. Similarly, I think there are some issues related to moving into offices, getting technology established in offices and getting your district offices set up, that also might be an opportunity for us, as a committee, to make some meaningful recommendations.”