NJ’s Representatives in DC Spend Millions on Staff, Travel, Other Expenses

Colleen O'Dea | October 11, 2013 | Map of the Week, Maps
Two U.S. senators spent over $6 million last year; 13 members of House ran up $15 million tab

Review members’ expenditures paid during the past year

Day 11 of a federal government shutdown seems like a good time to look at what New Jersey’s Congressmen spend to support their offices.

In 2012, data show, the state’s 13 members of the House spent more than $15 million on staff, office space, mailings, travel for themselves and staff and other expenses, while the two U.S. senators spent nearly $6.5 million.

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate continue to be paid their annual $174,000 salary during the shutdown, although many of their staffers are among a reported 700,000-800,000 federal workers who were furloughed or remain out of work. According to the Washington Post, six members – Republican Reps. Frank LoBiondo, Jon Runyan, Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen and Democrat Bill Pascrell – have said they would forgo any salary earned during the shutdown, while Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. said he needs his salary to support his family.

In addition to salary, members get a host of other perquisites, including a special tax deduction, health and life insurance and a retirement plan. They also get money for staff and office expenses, distributed differently in each house.

According to the Congressional Research Service, senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Accounts vary based on state population, distance to Washington and limits authorized by committees. These ranged during the 2013 fiscal year from $2.96 million to $4.69 million depending on the state and averaged $3.2 million. In the House, the Member’s Representational Allowance varies based on the cost of office space in the district, the number of homes in the district and the distance from the furthest point in the district to Washington. Last year, that amount ranged from $1.27 million to $1.56 million and averaged $1.35 million per representative.

According to the House Expenditure Reports Database available on the website of the Sunlight Foundation, South Jersey Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, spent the most last year — $1.29 million, compared with his allowance of $1.33 million. While in most cases, that money was paid out last year for 2012 bills, some of it may have gone for bills in prior years and, similarly, some 2012 spending may not be paid until 2013. He also ranked 10th most generous member of the House by LegiStorm, a website that tracks congressional salaries and other information, as the average salary paid to his staffers increased by 63 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with the first three quarters.

Stacy Barton, Runyan’s chief of staff, said the pay increase is temporary and is by design as a way to reward staff members who receive low salaries for most of the year in order to ensure the office can conduct all its business within the budget allotted by Congress.

“We keep staff salaries low on purpose and if we budget well and spend well and there is money left over at the end of the year … staff gets a temporary adjustment,” said Barton, who was working on Thursday despite not getting paid due to the shutdown.

She also said Runyan may have spent more than other representatives in 2012 because he was still a freshman and “it’s tough starting up a new office.”

At the other extreme, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, New Jersey’s wealthiest congressman according to the Roll Call website, spent the least: $910,831. His allowance of $1.36 million was the largest for any New Jersey House member.

There were some differences in the way members spent their allowances: LoBiondo allocated the greatest proportion of all members to personnel and the least to franked mailings; Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th, devoted the biggest percentage to mailings; Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, had the largest bill for rent, phone and utilities.

One of the most striking differences, though, is in how much members are reimbursed for their travel. Congressional rules provide for a minimum of $6,200, with the amount set based on 64 trips between Washington and the district and a rate per mile that ranges between 43 cents and $1.32. For New Jersey members, the rate is 96 cents per mile.

Two members, Smith and Garrett, personally received by far the largest amounts in travel payments, $17,971 for Smith and $16,967 for Garrett during the past year – from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013, according to an analysis of the Sunlight Foundation data. Most of the money Smith received covered private auto mileage and taxi, parking and tolls with some money for meals, as well. In Garrett’s case, most of the money covered commercial transportation, but some also covered mileage, taxis and tolls, meals and lodging – he received $2,020 last April 26 reportedly to cover lodging from Jan. 23 through Jan. 25. Smith’s largest travel-related payment was also on April 26, $855 for private auto mileage on March 22. Smith’s office did not return a phone call. A spokeswoman for Garrett said she wanted to see the data prior to commenting then did not call back.

But other “travel subsidence” payments were made via credit card. The largest amount was charged by Lance’s office – almost $23,000. Between credit charges or member reimbursements or both, every member got at least some travel payment, with the total adding up to $154,000.

The Senate’s spending report shows that New Jersey’s two Democratic Senators, Robert Menendez and the late Frank Lautenberg each had $3.31 million available to spend in the 2012 fiscal year. Menendez had spent all but $10,793 as of March 31, 2013. Of his allowance, $3.06 million went for payroll, $81,071 for travel, and about $64,000 each for rent and utilities and supplies and materials. Lautenberg had not spent $130,511. He had spent $2.98 million on payroll, $82,518 on supplies and materials and $53,237 on travel.

Because the Senate spending details are only available in a 1,990-page report in the PDF format, examining line items and comparing spending among members is more difficult than for House members.

Legistorm reported that congressional salaries at the beginning of the year were the lowest since 2008. That’s because Congress has cut its members’ allowances in recent years. The House MRAs in 2012 were roughly 11 percent less than in 2010, while the Senate’s SOPOEAs were about 6 percent less, according to a January report from the Congressional Research Service. Members’ salaries, however, have not declined but remain at the same level set in January 2009.