Ask Your Government: How Are Congressional Office Budgets Set?

kram1

For this week’s “Ask Your Government” post, Karmen mailed and asked about Congressional office budgets:

With all the “fiscal cliff” and other ‘talking points’ coming out of Washington, I got thinking more ‘in depth’ for things coming out of ND. That took me to this thought: Heidi got elected. So did Cramer. Does Washington tell them (as newbies) how many staff they can have and fed dollars pay all the salaries (I would assume that last part is a no brainer but thought I’d throw it in). Do the newly elected get to say how many staff they’ll need? Who decides what they will be paid?

The House and the Senate each handle this in different ways. For the House side of things, I asked Representative-elect Kevin Cramer (who is in the process of establishing his offices in the state and hiring staff) how it works for him.

“All congressional office budgets start the same and are then adjusted based on a few factors such as expected travel costs to a member’s district and market rental rates for office space,” he told me in an email. “Final budgets have not been set but the average for 2012 House offices is $1.4 million.”

That budget covers all of a House member’s office and staff needs except for the member’s budget, though Cramer points out that if a member goes over their allotted budget the excess comes out of their salary. Cramer called that “one application of free market discipline built into this process.”

Cramer noted that House members get a “great deal of discretion in how they utilize their allotment,” and that often member of Congress pool their resources to hire some staff.

“Each member can hire up to 18 full time employees and 4 part time employees,” Cramer said. “They can have as many offices in the district as they want and can distribute staff accordingly. Part time employees are often associated with joining caucuses who’s members aggregate resources for research and strategy development. Another area where members aggregate resources is for certain office support services. As many as 10 members may pool part time resources to hire one I.T. staffer or an office budget officer to service all of their offices.”

Cramer also pointed out that members of the House who serve at-large in larger western states such as North Dakota are at a bit of a disadvantage. “Serving the exact same constituency as a senator who has a much larger budget and three times as many staffers presents unique ramifications.” He also said that many members of the House will budget conservatively, assuming higher costs for fuel and air travel, and then give their staff bonuses at the end of the year if there are leftovers in the budget.

“Because some factors such as fuel prices and air fare are unknown early in the year, conservative budgeting provides flexibility as the year progresses,” Cramer said. “This is why you see many members hire staffers at low starting salaries and utilize bonuses later in the year. Of course there is always some experimenting early in the process with adjustments being made as experience teaches.”

On the Senate side of things, I went to Don Canton, spokesman for Senator John Hoeven.

“Our current budget for this fiscal year is $2.98 million,” Canton told me by way of an email, but noted that this figure is actually down. “This number will go down by 8.2% if sequestration occurs. This number compares to $3.17 million in our first year, 2011. Senator Hoeven has voted to cut the personal office budgets in the Senate.”

Canton noted that North Dakota is in the “lowest tier” for Senate offices budgets. Senators representing states with larger populations get larger budgets for offices and staff.

Canton said that, like the House, there is no requirement for the number of offices a member of the Senate must have in his/her state. Salary for staff is set by the Senator and his Chief of Staff, and the Senator chooses where his/her offices will be in the state. “We have tried to place our offices throughout the state to be accessible to our constituents,” Canton said.

If you have any questions about your government you’d like answered, please email them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try to get you answers.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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