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‘Shrugged off and ignored’: Lawmakers disagree on how to ease pain of election churn

Transitions from one member to the next can leave constituents caught in the middle

Trash and boxes are seen stacked outside a House office in 2018. When departing members leave office, transitions can be rocky for their replacements (and constituents).
Trash and boxes are seen stacked outside a House office in 2018. When departing members leave office, transitions can be rocky for their replacements (and constituents). (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Chuck Edwards decided to try to meet his constituents where they’re at when he came to Congress earlier this year. Literally.

The North Carolina Republican took the unusual step of creating a mobile office, a van that travels around the state’s 11th District to help with veterans and Social Security issues. Questions about passports, immigration or the IRS? Staffers in the van field those too.

It’s the kind of constituent casework that is a basic function of any congressional office, and the roaming van made sense in his rural district. 

But it was also a way to make up for lost time after his predecessor, embattled former Rep. Madison Cawthorn, declined to give him access to any constituent case files after Edwards beat him in a closely fought primary. 

“Effectively, we started out with zero caseload,” Edwards recalled in an interview this month, although Cawthorn has contested his account. “We had no idea what cases he had been working on, or the status of any of those cases. And worse over, the folks that thought they had a case being worked on were unaware that their case had essentially been dropped.”

Despite the complication, Edwards said his office got up to speed thanks to the van and a public call for people with open cases to contact his office. But the accusation exposed a long-standing problem of rocky transitions, with constituents caught in the middle. And lawmakers haven’t agreed on how to fix it.

Cawthorn wasn’t breaking any rules by not sharing casework, most of which is handled by staff in district offices. Lawmakers aren’t required to share their casework files with their successors before departing. Last Congress, a total of 39 outgoing members did not share such data with their successors, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Stephanie Bice, who leads the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee.

“Member offices turn over, but casework doesn’t. And then the constituent is left having to start completely over with a new office, and they feel like they’re just getting shrugged off and ignored by Congress,” said J.D. Rackey, director of legislative studies at the Sunwater Institute and a former staffer on the now-defunct House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

The select committee, or ModCom, which disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress, looked to smooth out those transitions and made a series of recommendations to address the issue. 

In the 116th Congress, a ModCom recommendation, based on an existing Senate program for new members, was implemented to create a transition aide, whose salary is paid by the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, to help members-elect set up their Washington offices. 

ModCom also recommended a second, optional transition aide to help members get their district offices off the ground. That aide, according to the select committee’s final report, could be reimbursed from the Members’ Representational Allowance, a fund allocated annually to cover member and staff salaries and other official expenses. That recommendation has not yet been implemented.

California Democratic Rep. Norma Torres, who sits on the House Administration Committee, recently sent a letter to the CAO inquiring about the feasibility of creating such a position, which she said could help offices more quickly get to casework and help sort out logistical issues, like finding office space and hiring district staff.

“It’s necessary to look at the needs of a new member. It’s so overwhelming when they’re already having to learn all of the processes and procedures,” Torres said. “I think taking this portion of the process out of the hands of a member and putting it into the hands of a competent employee so they are ready to open their office on day one is so important.”

Her interest in the issue is in part based on her own experience scrambling to set up a district office without any staff after she was elected in 2014. The lack of support left her office ill-equipped to deal with constituents by the time she was sworn in.

“On day one, there was a line of people waiting for us to open our door to work,” Torres said. “So I think the entire transition process really needs to be looked at from a constituent perspective.”

There is some consensus on that. 

Bice, an Oklahoma Republican, also said she faced a rocky transition after she flipped her district from Democrat Kendra Horn in 2020. The modernization subcommittee she now leads is in part tasked with implementing recommendations made by ModCom, and is investigating how the process might be improved. But she’s not convinced a district transition aide is the solution.

“The transition aide piece is on the recommendation list, and it is something that I think is worthy of consideration, but it hasn’t been something that’s been at the top of the list,” Bice said.

Edwards also advocated a change in how casework is transferred but opposed creating a district transition aide position, which could cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million, according to a Democratic aide on the House Administration Committee.

“I would not advocate for any additional personnel or expense to the taxpayer to administer a transition like this,” Edwards said. “I think the best way to handle it would be to put it into law that the incoming congressional office automatically receives access to open casework and constituent databases.”

Bice, however, suggested the process could be improved without any changes to law or House rules and without making the transfer mandatory. She said the existing data transition form presents members with a stark choice: either transfer the case files or not. Creating more nuance could encourage more members to opt in, especially those who may be reluctant to share information that includes office commentary on cases.

“I think the form is so generic in the way that it’s written,” Bice said. “It’s either they want to give the information or they don’t want to give the information, rather than, ‘I’m willing to give this specific information.’ Clarifying that would be much more helpful to whoever is outgoing and to whoever is incoming.”

Bice’s proposal doesn’t necessarily eliminate the potential for partisan revenge-taking. A member who loses a close or contentious race may still be disinclined to help the candidate who bested them.

But it at least could eliminate any concern that their casework notes could be used against them by a political rival.

“Quite frankly, it shouldn’t matter who takes over that office as long as the constituent is being taken care of,” Bice said. “I don’t like that the constituents with open cases are left by the wayside.”

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