House gets unusual raise

In tough economic times, one would expect most people and institutions to do a little belt-tightening to save money.  Not Congress, however, although that’s hardly news in Year 1 of Porkulus.  However, Pelosi & Co have slipped into the budget a $90 million increase in incumbency protection that has gone almost completely unnoticed — and unquestioned:

The House wants to increase Members’ office budgets next fiscal year by almost 15 percent, partly because 2010 is an election year and lawmakers anticipate a surge in franked mail.

In a recently released budget request, the House Chief Administrative Officer asked appropriators to raise the Members’ Representational Allowances — which fund everything needed to run offices, including salaries, travel and supplies — by $90 million, citing increases “due to the election year cycle.”

“In an election year the expenditures increase and then decrease in a non-election year,” the request reads.

There is only one problem with this rationale; incumbent candidates are not supposed to use public resources for their campaigns.  We have laws against that, and every blue moon someone gets investigated for it.  Salaries, travel, and supply costs should all be borne by the campaign and their contributors, not the American taxpayer.

In other words, an election year should present the same cost as any other year, not a biannual drain on the Treasury to allow incumbents to protect themselves at public expense. Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union calls foul:

“It’s an incredibly naked admission that Members of Congress abuse the franking privilege for electoral purposes, even though the rules say they don’t,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “This sends the worst possible message not only to the taxpayers, but to the electoral system as a whole.”

But House officials contend that they use the phrase “election year” without meaning to draw a link to the election. The phrase is “generically used to reference the second year of a Congressional cycle,” said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for CAO Dan Beard.

“The increase occurs because in the second year of any Congress, there is traditionally more legislative news to convey to constituencies as various bills evolve through the legislative process,” he said.

Anyone buying that explanation?  They use “election year” not generically but because members suddenly discover a need to communicate every single detail of their courageous attempts to represent their constituents when elections draw near.  Representatives bury their districts in a blizzard of newsletters informing them breathlessly that their incumbent’s letter to the assistant undersecretary of the Bureau of Taxpayer Waste Management got them an extra $534.33 spent on the sidewalk in front of Katie’s Kitchen so Grandma won’t trip over the crack from now on.

There should be no year-to-year difference in staffing, travel, and franking costs if campaigns cover their expenses — as they should, in order to allow for a fair election.  This is just another way to keep an entrenched political class in Washington DC by putting challengers at a bigger disadvantage, and it should be stopped.  Under Nancy Pelosi’s “most ethical Congress ever,” though, don’t hold your breath.