Why the ‘virtue signaling’ of unspent congressional office funds hurts constituents
Lawmakers should use their office allowances to help them do the jobs they were elected to do
Every politician likes to give the impression that they are good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Certainly, sincere efforts to make government more efficient and effective should be rewarded. But in their attempts to “virtue signal” to voters, too many members have deprived their districts, their constituents and their staff of key resources.
During his first year in office, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called a news conference in 2012 to unveil an oversize check for $500,000, which he claimed to be returning from his office account to taxpayers. This funding came from the Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account, or SOPOEA, the budget that Senate offices use to compensate their staff, run district offices, lease office equipment and perform official duties. (House offices have the Members’ Representational Allowance, or MRA.)
For this stunt, Paul was rewarded with news reports back then that labeled him “frugal.” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who left $1.2 million a year on the table (40 percent of his overall funding) between 2009 and 2011, also won praise. Other senators who made that 2012 “frugal” list were Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
The decision to return these office funds became a popular way for public officials to signal respect for taxpayer dollars during the Reagan years, when candidates began running against the government they sought to serve. Even now, many members seek these headlines and tout the move on their official member websites. But this framing ignores the reality that, by returning these funds, legislators are letting down their constituents and their staff. There’s no virtue in that.
With Congress turning its attention to spending levels for the year ahead, the decision to return office funds could become even more misguided. As part of the fiscal 2022 spending process, the House Appropriations Committee favorably reported a bill last month that would boost funding for the MRA by $134 million (or 21 percent). This shift would restore office funding levels to what they were more than a decade ago and better equip members with the resources they need to serve their constituents.
But increased funding will only have an impact if members put politics aside and use them. Over the last year, Americans have experienced a worldwide pandemic, a struggling economy and a long overdue reckoning with racial injustice. In this environment, the refusal by a member to use the money allocated to them isn’t just an empty gesture; it’s irresponsible. Leaving office funds unspent signals that these members believe they are already getting the job done at a time when congressional approval ratings are abysmal, and it communicates to staff that they don’t deserve a competitive wage.
What’s more, it isn’t clear that these funds are actually returned to the U.S. Treasury, and they definitely aren’t returned to taxpayers. The House has, at times, directed remaining MRA funds toward deficit reduction or reducing the federal debt. In some cases, however, this money remains part of the pot for other lawmakers to use. How might Paul feel knowing that his office funds are being used to serve Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s constituents?
The fact is, these funds are sorely needed. MRA or SOPOEA dollars are stretched between staff salaries and stipends for interns and fellows (if they receive any), the purchasing of technology and office supplies, covering the cost of office mail, and other resources and services crucial to the daily operations of a congressional office.
That’s why news of this new appropriation is such a big deal.
Over the last decade, congressional offices have had to juggle greater responsibilities as district populations grow and federal programs expand. But despite these trends, the offices have less funding to do their jobs today than they did a decade ago.
At the same time, civil society groups and internal initiatives, such as the House Modernization of Congress Committee, have highlighted numerous areas in which the House needs more support. Last year, the Modernization panel advanced 97 recommendations designed to make Congress more effective, functional and representative. These recommendations included higher staff pay, providing more comprehensive training and revitalizing House technology so that the legislative branch uses the most up-to-date tools to serve constituents.
The need for offices to undertake these reforms is why 110 House members called for a 21 percent increase in the MRA and why appropriators answered that call in the fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch spending bill.
For this influx of dollars to make a significant difference, members have to use the scarce funding allocated to them instead of playing politics with resources that could be spent on serving their constituents. So take the money, members of Congress, and do the jobs you were elected to do.
Meredith McGehee is the executive director of Issue One, a crosspartisan political reform group in Washington.
Jamie Neikrie is the coordinator of Issue One’s Fix Congress Cohort, an informal network of organizations and experts committed to a more functional and effective Congress.