Members of the House can pretty much do what they want with the money allotted to them to run their offices. And with the Capitol closed to tours, committee action curbed and no lobbyists dropping in, at least one, Rep. Mark Amodei, says some staffers “are just sitting there” as a result of the coronavirus, and he’s considering cutting positions in his Washington office.
“We’re in the process of looking at our workload right now. I’m going, hey, I may be laying some people off. Because there’s nothing to do,” the Nevada Republican told CQ Roll Call.
Amodei said the Cannon House Office Building “is like a ghost town” at the moment. He hasn’t been to a committee meeting since March 11, and he noted that some key tasks for staff assistants and policy staffers have evaporated.
“There’s several of the missions that used to be routine that we don’t have anymore,” he said. “There’s no groups, there’s no tours, there’s no people rotating through the office to lobby you.”
Each House lawmaker gets a Members’ Representational Allowance, from which they pay for staff salaries; travel to Washington and within their districts; rent for district offices; office equipment; and other expenses. Members have a high degree of flexibility on how to allot their MRA funds.
Unlike a private company, which may lay off workers as business and revenue dries up, the taxpayer dollars allotted for MRAs are fixed by annual spending bills and not determined by workload of members.
“We’ve always returned money from the MRA, anyhow, since I’ve been here, but it’s [looking] like it might be quite a bit more,” Amodei said.
Individual members cannot transfer their MRA dollars between years. Under current law, unspent funds at the end of a fiscal year are held by the chamber for two more fiscal years before they are returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Members often refer to this as “paying down the national debt,” and the requirement to use unspent MRA dollars on “deficit reduction” is written into law.
Amodei’s district offices in Reno and Elko, Nevada, are humming with activity as constituents seek help on federal and non-federal issues related to the coronavirus and the economic impacts and recovery efforts.
“The only thing that’s changed there is probably the workload’s gotten bigger. But that’s fine. We can handle that,” Amodei said of his offices in Nevada’s 2nd District.
Staff in the district are able to physically come in to work, but the House is encouraging D.C. staff to work from home if possible and to limit crowding small congressional offices with the usual hustle and bustle of staffers.
“We’re lucky because our offices in the two locations where we’re at in the district allow people to come to work because there’s more than six feet. We got masks, so they’ve been at work all day, every day,” Amodei said.
Asked if downsizing his D.C. office staff may mean hiring to grow his staff on the ground in Nevada, Amodei said there are no current plans to do so but he would explore the possibility.
“I can tell you this: I’m sure as heck not planning to grow in D.C. So if I was gonna add a position anywhere, it would be in the Reno office, just for casework,” he said.
Not all members
House members on both sides of the aisle responded with disbelief when asked by CQ Roll Call if they too were considering layoffs while the coronavirus slowed down action in the House.
“Oh, my guys are working. My folks are working too hard to think about layoffs,” Illinois Republican Rodney Davis said.
An array of lawmakers told CQ Roll Call that the coronavirus has prompted shifts in staff resources, especially to handle the casework explosion.
“That would be too bad if we’re laying people off,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. “We’ve been fully engaged. We’re getting hammered with casework.”
The Ohio Democrat said he’s moved staff around to help out with the influx of constituent needs, assigning staffers who don’t usually work on casework to pitch in.
“Each of our case workers back in the district are just bombarded between the unemployment, PUA, the PPP,” said Ryan, referencing the array of federal aid programs changed or expanded in the coronavirus relief packages.
“There’s plenty of work,” he said.
Davis, who is the top Republican on the House Administration Committee and serves on the Modernization of Congress panel, questioned any member laying off staff when the nation and constituents are facing major challenges resulting from coronavirus.
“It makes you wonder how people run their offices if they think they can lay off their essential staff,” he said.
Davis was quick to point out that he himself is a former district aide and said all his staffers work on some casework, even if their primary role is policy or communications.
“They’re the most important people in our service area. They’re the ones that send us here. They’re the ones that allow us to have the opportunity to work for such a great institution,” he said.
Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne credited his team for pitching in wherever they’re needed, as the coronavirus continues to scramble schedules and priorities.
“Everybody understands there’s a gap here, a gap there, and the team moves in to fill the gap,” he said. “People have had a really good attitude in the office.”
But he admitted it was hard for staffers working from home, fielding calls from constituents who are distraught. Byrne said an uptick in participation in his telephone town halls has also resulted in an increase in constituent questions and cases that need to be handled by staff.
“Dealing with all these people on the phone who are so upset, there’s been an extra burden there, but I think they’ve handled it magnificently and had a great attitude,” he said.
Many offices have made technology upgrades to accommodate working from home and their MRA expenditures have shifted to accommodate.
California Democrat Susan A. Davis said the computer she had been using was too old to use the multiple videoconferencing platforms that are now a part of daily life.
“What we tried to do is really respond to the need, and so there were some staff members who needed a different kind of computer. I actually did, because we’re using Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx for meetings,” she said. “What I was using was old.”
But she didn’t have to dip far into her MRA to make the computer purchases, crediting the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer for the upgrades.
Rep. Rodney Davis (no relation to Rep. Susan A. Davis) said some House technology upgrades were the result of an efficient and timely bipartisan effort as the coronavirus bore down on the country. The Illinois Republican credited cooperation with House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren for making a key resource available to the House.
“Zoe and I worked together to make sure that for the first time ever, we put laptops in the office supply store right before everybody left on March 13,” he said, calling it a “bipartisan success story.”
Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton noted that with the House only voting sporadically since March, his flight expenditures are down.
“Definitely spending less on travel,” he said. “We have invested in some technology. For example, we invested some money in getting a better video setup to do TV interviews from home.”
But he said a new camera didn’t make a significant dent and flights to and from Boston are cheap, so he doesn’t see a significant overall shift in how his office funds are spent overall.
Ryan said he’s also invested in some lights and other equipment to upgrade his videoconferences and media appearances and credits his staff with helping with the learning curve of all the platforms and technical details.
“Your technical support, you need them now more than ever,” he said. “Everyone’s doing a Zoom call in a different way. It’s WebEx, it’s this, it’s that, so things are a lot more complicated in that regard.”
He said technology is another area he would consider staffing up.
Many House offices have canceled summer, and even fall, internships due to the coronavirus, but Texas Republican Chip Roy has two interns in his D.C. office this summer.
“They’re Texans who wanted to work, and they were fine, had places to stay and we don’t want them to miss out on the intern experience,” Roy said.
He said they’ll be working on specific projects, since there’s no sign of when the classic intern task of guiding visitor tours will resume on Capitol Hill.
“We’ll make sure they do and see some cool things, even if it’s less than normal,” Roy said.