Official spending reports provide another window into changes in the House over the last decade. Every quarter, the Chief Administrative Officer of the House publishes a Statement of Disbursements showing what each House member, committee, and leadership office spent in the previous quarter. Since 2009, the reports have been published online and compiled by ProPublica and other open-government websites into a database-compatible format for ready analysis.
The reports paint a picture of sharply declining resources in the House over the last decade, with cuts borne primarily by individual Member offices.
Overall, spending in Member offices declined from $630 million to $545 million in 2018, a decline of 13% in nominal dollars and 25% when adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, inflation-adjusted non-Member spending has declined by only 6%. Offices have adjusted to these trends by keeping staff but cutting everywhere else. Non-staff Member office spending went from 29.4% of office spending in 2010 to 24.4% in 2018, going as low as 22.2% in 2016.
Franked mail spending saw an immediate drop in percentage terms from 4.3% in 2010 to 2.9% in 2012, dropping to an election year low of 2.2% in 2016 before rising again to 2.8% of the average office budget in 2018. Other expenses dropped from 20.9% of the average office budget to 17.4% in 2018, while travel costs remained fixed at around 4% of the office budget.
Office headcounts have fallen in tandem with shrinking budgets. The average member of Congress in 2018 had two fewer staff members in a given quarter than the average member in 2010. The average salary of these remaining staffer has remained constant in nominal dollars, meaning a cut when adjusted for cost of living increases. This is manifest in a broader concern expressed on Capitol Hill about increased turnover and difficulty recruiting qualified staff. To live in the expensive Washington, D.C. area, lesser-paid staff must either take second jobs or come from affluent households with support from parents.
To preserve the ability to perform core office functions following early-2010s budget cuts, House offices mainly cut administrative roles, such as staff assistants, schedulers, and information technology staff, with this category going from 37.6% of office spending in 2010 to 31.8% in 2018. Other roles remained constant or increased as a share of the typical office, with communications staff have going up slightly as a share of the typical office, from 5.8% in 2010 to 7.0% in 2018.
Changes in the Press Shop
The shift from traditional press to social media is evident too in the spending data, which lists the job title of each staff member.
The job of Communications Director is ubiquitous throughout the House, with a presence in just about every House office. But staff with the title of Press Secretary are less common than they were a decade ago, with 290 staff in 2011 and just 188 in 2018. Meanwhile, those with the title of Press Assistants have gone from 55 staff in 2010 to 107 staff in 2018. Interviews with staff revealed that these roles were given to junior staff and placed a heavy emphasis on social media, whereas a Press Secretary would be spending most of their day corresponding with the media.
These reports, however, may undercount total staff dedicated to communications on Capitol Hill. In our survey, offices reported an average of 4 staff whose main duties were in communications where the data shows less than 2 staff per office with job titles related to communications. This is due to many staffers performing a mix of job functions, both at the top (Chiefs of Staff normally take an outsized role in communications) and elsewhere (some offices consider Legislative Correspondents and others writing constituent mail as communicators).
Franked Mail Cut by Half
Franked mail has been hit particularly hard by spending cuts. Total franked mail spending of $15 million in 2018 was just over half the total of $27 million reported in 2010. The decline in mass mailings, as distinguished from individual responses to constituent letters, was likely even steeper. Since mass mailings are grouped with individual correspondence in the reports, there is no way to tease out the exact rate of decline in mass mailings. But the data confirms that cuts are disproportionately concentrated in heavier-spending offices that were the ones most likely to be doing mass mailings in the first place. To isolate a set of offices most likely to be sending mass mailings, we set a $50,000 annual spending threshold. In 2010, 234 offices crossed this threshold. In 2018 only 116 did.