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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  • Patrick R. Pfeiffer

    These huge budgets and entourages bestowed upon our elected royalty are ridiculous.
    Surely they can operate and do their jobs with less?
    18 full-time and 4 part-time staff members for ONE congressman?
    What an example of the bloated monstrosity our Federal Government has become.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      Maybe, but I’m not sure I entirely agree Patrick. We expect a lot from our members of Congress. We want them to have offices relatively close to us that we can visit. We want them to be responsive to our letters and phone calls. We want them to well-informed about thousands of bills that get introduced every session, and especially well-informed about the hundreds that ultimately get passed. We want them to travel and hold town halls.

      That all costs money. I don’t think a staff of 18, and a $1.4 million budget, is all that unreasonable for a member of Congress to serve a constituency of nearly 700,000 North Dakotans.

      People get bent out of shape about congressional salaries and office budgets a lot, but there’s a major disconnect between that and what we expect from our members of Congress. Not to mention the drop in the bucket congressional salaries/budgets represent to overall federal spending.

  • JW-American

    18 staffers? say a Chief of staff and 5 full time staffers crammed into a very small federal building office in DC, 4 in Fargo, 5 in Bismarck, and Maybe 2 each in Minot and Grand Forks to handle all the Social Security, Veterans and Water, Ag and Immigration etc. questions that come in every day? Plus the ranting of hundreds of thick off constituents that call in often.

    What is stupid is all of Bergs furniture will be shipped to Pueblo Colorado, mixed in with every one else’s be it R or D that losts stuff, then divided back out and sent to the NEW guy/gal.

    Another thing that is dumb is they rent space from Private Landlords, (Which has to meet some level of enhanced security) which in turn pay city & county property tax on those spaces. Isnt that what we have exempt Federal buildings for?

    How about a space in the Federal building with a shared receptionist for both the Senators and the District Representative? One shared phone system, one set of security guards for those states that need them, one stop if you don’t like the attitude of this Senator or that one.

    Oh, that would make too much sense. I heard Berg had to be out of his DC federal office early so they could re-paint and re-carpet it. He was only in it for about 16 months because of the delay re-carpeting and Painting it 16 months ago, but those union painters have to paint something… How about the inside of the West Fargo Post office! That barn’s need paint for years now.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      18 staffers? say a Chief of staff and 5 full time staffers crammed into a very small federal building office in DC, 4 in Fargo, 5 in Bismarck, and Maybe 2 each in Minot and Grand Forks to handle all the Social Security, Veterans and Water, Ag and Immigration etc. questions that come in every day? Plus the ranting of hundreds of thick off constituents that call in often.

      Exactly. We expect members of Congress to be available for all of that, but we complain when their staffs are too large.

      We can’t have it both ways.

      How about a space in the Federal building with a shared receptionist for both the Senators and the District Representative? One shared phone system, one set of security guards for those states that need them, one stop if you don’t like the attitude of this Senator or that one.

      The only problem with sharing phone lines, etc. might be privacy. If I were Senator Hoeven, or Rep. Cramer, I’m not sure I’d want to share too much with Senator Heitkamp given that her motives and agendas are quite the opposite.

      Like it or not, it’s democracy is an inherently adversarial process.

      • http://ndgoon.blogspot.com Goon

        Good point, I don’t see Kramer and Hoeven doing anything for Heidi.

      • JW-American

        The Dems and Republicans offices in DC are side by side by side, they could all be on one floor of a building with common reception area and security. They all log visitors anyway don’t they? They could take their own internal calls, but visitors and mail could all come though the main Federal building security system.

    • kevindf

      They should rent office space from Regus. http://www.regus.com/

      • JW-American

        Or from Rick Berg the EVIL slum lord that wants you to burn up in his buildings if you believe HideyHo’s commercials.

  • guest

    North Dakota must want to be more like the federal government. Governor wants salary increase for himself from $113,594/yr up to $121,681/yr through June 30, 2014. That’s funny. A bill last session had it going up only to $105,000/yr. But wait, it gets better. Then in 2014 the Governor’s salary would jump to $126,549 thereafter. He wants Lt. Gov. Wrigley to get a pay raise too, from $88,183 to $94,462 through June 30, 2014. Then up to $98,241 thereafter. (See House Bill No. 1001, Governor’s budget request). Governor also wants $274,643 more for his office salaries and wages. He has 18 fte’s and he’d like that to remain the same. And operating expenses would go down $5,290.
    Governor wants Secretary of State Al Jaeger salary increase from $90,360/yr to $96,794 through June 30, 2014. Then it would go up to $100,666/yr thereafter (House Bill No. 1002).
    Governor wants Attorney General to get pay raise from $134,135 to $143,685 through June 30,2014. Then it would go up to $149,432 thereafter. (House Bill No. 1003).
    The Governor wants pay raises across the board. Governor’s requested State Auditor budget is House Bill No. 1004. Governor’s requested State Treasurer budget is House Bill No. 1005. Governor’s requested Tax Commissioner budget is House Bill No. 1006. Governor’s requested Labor Commissioner budget is House Bill No. 1007. Governor wants Public Service Commission pay raises, House Bill No. 1008. Governor wants Ag Commissioner pay raise, House Bill No. 1009. The list goes on.

    • jimmypop

      you ALWAYS get what you pay for…..id be happy as hell to pay our governor $1M a year if we got someone with REAL talent and true leadership there. we’d all be better served in the long run.

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