Interactive Map: How NJ Congressional Reps Spend Their Expense Allowances

Colleen O'Dea | September 30, 2016 | Map of the Week, Maps
Most of the money goes to staff salaries, but many spend heavily on mail to constituents in an election year

With New Jersey’s entire delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives on the November ballot, voters might want to see how much taxpayer money they spend and how they spend it.

Halfway through the year, the state’s 12 House members had spent $6.2 million, an average of $516,000 each, on staff salaries, mailings, travel, and other expenses, according to data from LegiStorm’s Official Congressional Expenses database. That represented just 41 percent of the total amount they are allotted.

If last year is any indication, they are likely to get closer to their budgets by the end of the year. In 2015, the database shows the dozen representatives had nearly $14.1 million in expenses, almost 95 percent of their allotments.

Congressional Spending 1/1/15-6/30/16
Congressional Spending 1/1/15-6/30/16

Amounts spent by NJ House members. Search by 1 or more fields or leave blank to enter the database.

That’s slightly more frugal than the House as a whole. Overall, congressmen spent about $534 million on their office and travel expenses last year, just 4 percent under budget. Only one congressman, Texas Republican Rep. John Carter, reportedly spent his full budgeted allotment. Democrat Albio Sires, who represents the 8th District that includes parts of Jersey City and Newark, came closest in New Jersey, spending 99.88 percent of his budget, ranking him 13th nationally.

Sires, a 10-year congressman, also spent overall the most of the state’s representatives — nearly $1.25 million in 2015. The most frugal member of New Jersey’s delegation was Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, a Republican representing the 11th District in Morris County. He spent just under $1.05 million, less than 85 percent of his budget.

So far this year, the two men hold the same spots, with Sires having spent nearly $555,000 through the first two quarters of the year, while Frelinghuysen is about $100,000 behind him in spending.

Staff compensation is the biggest portion of the representatives’ budget, typically accounting for about three quarters of the total. Office rent and expenses eat up about 8 percent and franked mail — those newsletters and other correspondence mailed to constituents — is about 4 percent of the total. Travel costs, including that allowed for congressmen to go to and from Washington, accounts for just 2 percent of a House member’s budget.

In the first 5 1/2 years of this decade, New Jersey’s delegation — including past members and going back to the time when the state had 13 representatives prior to reapportionment — has spent close to $100 million on expenses.

Expense allowances of about $1.25 million for New Jersey representatives are provided so members can operate offices, serve and communicate with constituents, and get to work in Washington. In the House, the Member’s Representational Allowance varies based on the number of homes in the district and the distance from the farthest point in the district to Washington. This year, that amount ranges from $1.17 million to $1.8 million per representative. That is in addition to the annual $174,000 salary a member of Congress receives. The total 2016 allowance is 1 percent more than the 2015 amount.

Money in members’ allowances that is not spent is returned to the US Treasury after two years, according to the House.

This year, the House increased the ease of transparency by posting quarterly expenditures of members both in pdf and searchable database format. NJ Spotlight has put that data into a searchable database. It also includes 2015 data provided by the Sunlight Foundation, which had put the reports into an easier-to-analyze format prior to the House’s action this year. It includes all spending reported so far from January 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016 by individual item.

LegiStorm analyzed the spending reported so far this year and found eight of 10 of the top spenders nationally are Republicans, and GOP members, particularly those in vulnerable districts, were spending more on mass mailings in this election year. Prior analyses have shown that representatives tend to spend more of their allowances on franked mailings to constituents, who are also voters, during election years. Although franked mail cannot be used overtly for campaigning, members can legally talk about their goals and accomplishments in such mailings, which are paid by tax, not campaign, dollars.

On the whole, New Jersey’s GOP members spent more than their Democratic colleagues in the past 18 months. Five of the 12 members from both parties spent a greater percentage of their budgets on franked mailings in the first half of this year than in 2015. All of them — Republicans Frelinghuysen, Scott Garrett, and Leonard Lance and Democrats Donald Norcross and Bonnie Watson Coleman — had primary opponents.