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Congress’ most important function (that almost no one uses)

Margaret Cavanaugh
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Margaret Cavanaugh's constituent services work helped earn a vote from a liberal Democrat for her boss, Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen.

Pam Pommer was not a big fan of Rep. Erik Paulsen — at least not before she came to his office for help.

Pommer, 61, is a self-described liberal Democrat who has lived in the Third Congressional District for years. She cares about gun control and access to affordable health care; she supported Al Franken even before he was the junior U.S. senator from Minnesota.

But in 2009, when the recession hit, Pommer lost her job and began struggling to pay the mortgage on her home. She was curious about the federal government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program, which was set up to give borrowers more refinancing options, but says her bank failed to respond to her inquiries about the program.

Frustrated, Pommer did what some people do when they run low on options: She contacted her U.S. senators to see if they could help. But she didn’t hear much back, so, reluctantly, she called up the office of Paulsen, a Republican.

She spoke with a constituent services employee named Margaret Cavanaugh about her problem finding out more information on the HARP program, and Cavanaugh told Pommer she’d look into it. Two weeks later, Pommer heard back from her bank and got the information she needed. She was impressed.

Years later, as her ailing mother faced difficulties affording her nursing home care, Pommer remembered how helpful Paulsen’s office had been. Pommer’s mother qualified for survivors’ benefits through the Veterans’ Administration — her late husband served in combat in World War II. But, like many people, the Pommers had difficulty navigating the bureaucracy of the VA. They were told benefit checks could take up to six months to arrive, and Pommer’s mother was very sick. So she called up Cavanaugh again, who took the case. They began receiving checks from the VA a month later.

Pommer was officially won over. “I have talked about [Cavanaugh] with everyone I meet, practically — if you need federal help, go to Paulsen’s office,” she told MinnPost.

The experience was enough to inspire Pommer to cast a vote in favor of Paulsen in the 2014 election — the first time she had ever voted for the four-term incumbent. “My friends almost disowned me,” she laughs. But she says she felt guilty getting so much help from Paulsen’s office without voting for him.

Pommer concedes that may sound a little odd coming from a Democrat. “It sounds narrow-minded, not based on the issues,” she says, “but I have to do this out of gratitude. A little thank you or something on my behalf.”

Congress’ most important responsibility

Pommer’s story illustrates the power of one of Congress’ biggest assets: constituent services, or the practice of elected lawmakers assisting their constituents in their business with the federal government.

An enormous amount of time, effort, and resources flows toward casework, and many members of Congress will tell you that helping constituents is their most important responsibility.

Lawmakers’ state and district offices mainly exist for the purpose of handling constituent casework, and Minnesota’s members employ anywhere from three to eight full-time staffers who process casework. According to one estimate, the annual cost for all of Congress’ constituent services work could be as high as $400 million, which comes from the $550 million allocated to all members’ personal offices. Minnesota’s 10 congressional offices handled more than 16,500 different cases in 2015.

But, for all this expenditure of time and money, and all the lip service paid to the vital importance of this district work, only a tiny fraction of a member of Congress’ constituents will ever make use of these services.

Why invest so much into casework, then?

Offices handle dozens, hundreds of cases at a time

From the very beginning, Congress was involved in the work of helping people get what they needed from the federal government. When the Revolutionary War ended, veterans of the Continental Army looked to the fledgling central government for the pensions they had earned through military service. By most historical accounts, the government did a poor job, and veterans’ associations petitioned members of Congress for their hard-earned cash.

As the federal government expanded over the centuries, so did the purview of constituent services. The New Deal, post-World War II and Great Society government programs drastically expanded opportunities for regular people to interact with the federal government, and those people began relying on Washington offices for vital services like medical care.

These days, congressional offices can and do deal with virtually any issue or problem a person might have with the federal government. At any given time, a House member’s office is dealing with dozens of open constituent cases; for a senator’s office, it might be hundreds.

Abby Rime does casework for Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer.
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Abby Rime does casework for Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer.

The number of agencies that most offices spend the bulk of their time dealing with you can count one one hand: the Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Internal Revenue Service, and Citizenship and Immigration Services draw the most cases by far.

These agencies encompass some of the most pressing problems a person might have with the government: a crucial benefit check not coming in, a tax refund calculated incorrectly, a green card application for a spouse or family member held up. Typically, an office will have a staffer that focuses solely on one or two of these in-demand areas.

But beyond that, these relatively small offices work with an impressively broad array of Washington agencies. Take, for example, Sen. Al Franken’s office: In 2015, the majority of cases it worked on had to do with the big five agencies listed before. But it still dealt with a trickle of requests having to do with a dozen other agencies — the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the State Department, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Postal Service, the list goes on.

‘It’s almost like being a consumer advocate’

With such broad reach and jurisdiction, congressional constituent services are sometimes thought of as a collective customer service department for the federal government. The phrase is even used in internally produced casework guides that congressional offices look to when setting up casework shops.

But that characterization is not quite accurate: Federal agencies have their own customer service departments. The rationale for congressional involvement is that members’ offices can step in to help people navigate the system, or get involved when the system has already failed.

“It’s almost like being a consumer advocate to some degree, a navigator/advocate,” says Josh Stracka, who handles constituent casework for Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum. “It’s a better way to term it than customer service. We’re not directly working for these agencies.”

“Our office essentially helps Minnesotans navigate government bureaucracy, cut through red tape, and provide access to services they need,” says Ben Hill, who is the state director for Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “Constituent services is a core function of our office, and a critical way to make sure the federal government is more accountable to people and more responsible to their needs.”

At their best, then, congressional caseworkers are more like ombudsmen: Congressional offices help citizens navigate bureaucracy and translate all the jargon, and they help clue in federal lawmakers to minor, recurring or major lapses in the executive branch’s functioning.

‘How can I help?’

That whole process almost always begins with an email, call, or letter to a congressional office. The offices are, by law, prohibited from soliciting cases directly, but they can send staffers to local events and publicize services on lawmakers’ websites. And virtually all offices’ websites have a built-in casework form featured prominently on the home page with a message like, “How can I help?”

Regardless of the constituent’s request, and whether or not a congressional office can do anything about it, a prompt and courteous response is vitally important. Caseworkers are very aware that, just as a satisfied constituent will tell friends about a good experience, a disgruntled constituent will talk at length about a bad one.

To that end, a staffer will always respond to a constituent, no matter what, to feel out his or her request to see what can be done. The office considers a series of questions — can it be handled with an administrative fix? Is the person’s problem the result of a specific mistake, or is there a more systemic problem at work?

Sometimes, the staffer has to feel out if a constituent is just harboring a political disagreement: Congressional offices get a lot of communication from constituents who have something to say about policy and politics, one way or another. But staffers note that “passionate” calls can sometimes lead to thoughtful conversations, which in turn reveal real grievances that lead to real cases.

Much of the time, constituent questions can be answered pretty simply, with a referral to the right federal office or nonprofit, or by just looking up information the caller couldn’t find on their own. But for people who need more in-depth help, staffers request a privacy release form so the congressional office can access and share information with a federal agency.

The kinds of requests a member of Congress gets can vary with their personal brand and issue profile. The office of First District Rep. Tim Walz, for example, processes many cases for veterans — so much so that his caseworkers routinely get contacted by people who don’t live in his district, or even in Minnesota. And Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House agriculture panel, has a staffer who solely focuses on water issues.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The Veterans Administration is a top generator of constituent services cases.

The common thread, though, is that for more complicated cases, a congressional office usually isn’t a first call: Those involved in casework say that most of the people they work with in-depth have hit some kind of wall that they can’t navigate on their own.

Once the congressional office obtains written go-ahead from a constituent to investigate their case, caseworkers begin communicating with the federal agency involved to gather the facts and figure things out. Each agency in the executive branch has an office with dedicated employees who respond to congressional requests; for some departments, like the VA, those offices are large.

From a passport in days to an adoption in years

Once initiated, the lifespan for a case can vary widely. Some cases can get resolved in a matter of hours — like expediting passports, for example. Sometimes passports just get delayed; oftentimes, people forget to renew them or aren’t aware that countries don’t accept documents that are soon to expire. Congressional caseworkers say they don’t judge.

But other passport cases can arise from far graver circumstances: Earlier this year, a Minnesota woman was killed, and her daughter injured, while on vacation in Jamaica; Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer’s office got a passport quickly for the woman’s husband in time for him to catch the first flight there.

If passport cases show caseworkers at their most nimble, immigration cases show them at their most patient. These frequently take years, and are defined by constant communication between congressional offices, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and agents from foreign governments.

Cases involving U.S. families adopting children from abroad can be among the trickiest. Hill, Klobuchar’s state director, says his team frequently assists Minnesotans with adoption cases; a recent press release from Klobuchar said that after the Haiti earthquake, her caseworkers helped secure 39 adoptions of Haitian children by Minnesota families.

Hill recalls one woman, whose husband had died in the I-35W bridge collapse, who ran into trouble with the customs and immigration service during the process of adopting twins from Haiti — the office got involved, and those twins now live in Minnesota.

But in many of these cases, there are limits to what U.S. authorities can do. Barbara Harper, who does casework for Emmer, recalls that authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo simply decided to disallow exit visas for children adopted by foreign families. “The State Department, they do conference calls, they’re good at keeping up with things. … But for a lot of people, they have to just wait and hope things work out,” she says.

Caseworkers also have to deal with the problem of missing or incomplete documentation, both from agencies and from constituents. Often, offices assist veterans who claim they deserve honors for actions taken during war. For example, Paulsen’s office got some press last year for helping a World War II veteran from Eden Prairie finally be awarded the French government’s highest military honor.

Verifying the information and building a case for medals can be a painstaking process, though, says Harper. “We have to find records that support whatever action was done that they deserve that medal for. That requires several steps: trying to get records from the archives, get military records that show that the person was involved in a certain action at a certain date and was injured,” she says. “You have to get hospital records, and of course, that’s not always available, and records may have holes in them.”

Barbara Harper does casework for Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer.
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Barbara Harper does casework for Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer.

Caseworkers can do a great deal of good, but there are plenty of situations in which they simply can’t help, or aren’t able to deliver the outcome the constituent wants. Congressional offices are legally prohibited from handling anything that has active, related litigation or investigation, for example. Beyond that, caseworkers say it’s very difficult to get results for someone in cases in which an agency has already issued a final decision or ruling.

If a case reaches the end of the road without a successful resolution, caseworkers will try to connect the constituent with a nonprofit, state government, or other entity that might be able to be of some help.

Regardless of whether a case is resolved successfully or does not help the constituent much, whether it takes a long time or a short time, a constituent who has an interaction with a congressional office is highly likely to view that member more favorably.

It’s why every call or email gets returned, no matter the request: People appreciate it when they’re being listened to. “Even if they didn’t get the case resolved the way they wanted, but we facilitated and did everything we could, people know the rules are the rules and the regulations are the regulations,” says Bill Harper, chief of staff for McCollum.

The case against casework: dysfunction and corruption

Despite the feel-good stories of medals awarded and adoptions secured, some argue the practice of constituent services does more ill than good. At the heart of misgivings over casework is that it takes up too much time and money that is better spent on other things — like legislating — and that it invites special treatment at best and outright corruption at worst.

In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Fred Bernstein lays out the essentials of the case against casework. The practice, he writes, is glorified meddling — “a sign of federal dysfunction … Congress, arguably the most powerful branch of government, seems to have given up on the main thing the Constitution authorizes it to do: pass laws.”

The legislative branch, Bernstein continues, “is busy helping Americans one at a time, an impractical and outrageously expensive operation, which is not only a kind of favoritism masquerading as compassion, but a thumb in the eye of the Constitution.”

To illustrate that favoritism, Bernstein brings up the example of the so-called Keating Five, five U.S. senators accused in 1989 of leveraging their authority to aid Charles Keating, who chaired an embattled savings and loan company, Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.

Keating, who lived in Arizona, contributed substantial sums to the campaigns of the state’s two senators, Republican Sen. John McCain and former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini. Those two senators, along with three others, were accused of intervening in a federal investigation of Lincoln. In 1991, McCain was cleared of wrongdoing; DeConcini was found to have interfered substantially in the investigation but did not receive any formal punishment.

The officials involved, including McCain, initially tried to fend off criticism with the constituent services defense — Keating, after all, was technically a constituent. In his book “The Ruling Class: Inside the Imperial Congress,” conservative writer Eric Felten detailed McCain’s response, which included a claim that assisting Keating was no different from “helping the little lady who didn’t get her social security.”

Since the Keating affair, the scrutiny applied by ethics watchdogs upon constituent services has been tougher. And congressional offices have become much more sensitive to the appearance of impropriety and special treatment, according to Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

Still, Bernstein maintains that constituent services “can’t help more than a tiny fraction of Americans. Particularly likely to receive assistance are the English-speaking, the educated, and the connected, who can write the most convincing letters, or make the largest campaign contributions.”

“Congress was never meant to be a retail operation,” he concludes.

‘Working the system’ just part of politics

Those who work in constituent services and have seen it up close hotly dispute the case Bernstein laid out.

For one, the notion that only the wealthy and educated benefit from the attentions of congressional offices is a false one, according to Georgetown’s Harkins.

Mark Harkins

Harkins spent years on Capitol Hill working for North Carolina members of Congress, and recalls the formidable casework operation of the controversial longtime Republican Rep. Jesse Helms. “He had folks who knew how to work the system to take care of his constituents, citizens in North Carolina, not the moneyed people,” Harkins says.

“Working the system doesn’t mean you’re getting an undue benefit or a benefit for one citizen,” he says. “Sometimes the federal government is made up of human beings who just make a mistake. It’s hard for individual citizens to penetrate the bureaucracy to get that mistake clarified.”

Harkins also added that people who haven’t done casework, like Bernstein, tend to overestimate how much sway congressional offices have with federal agencies. He says people tend to believe the notion that when a case comes in, a member calls up an agency, snaps their fingers, and something gets done.

At the same time, Harkins says, “Congressional offices spend time working with agencies, and agencies do respond to them differently than they would an individual, because they understand that congressional offices, Congress in general, is an overseer of their operations.”

Indeed, caseworkers from Minnesota generally spoke fondly of their counterparts in the federal bureaucracy; Stracka recalled a time when a passport office manually sorted through bins of passports to help him out with a case.

The big idea, casework advocates say, is that congressional offices can and should step in when an individual has hit a roadblock he or she can’t get past alone. “It’s ensuring that the federal bureaucracy is doing what it’s supposed to do,” Harkins says, “with the resources it has, and isn’t mistreating anyone through malfeasance or human error.”

A catalyst for legislative action

Doing that job, caseworkers say, ultimately improves how the federal government works — not just for one constituent, but for anyone.

Minnesota caseworkers were able to recall numerous instances in which working a case revealed a broader pattern of failing in a government office or consistently bad policy outcomes. Those things, they say, can and do get addressed by lawmakers, who have ways to advance lasting solutions.

“One of the things we talk to our constituent advocates about is that if you are seeing a pattern and seeing something that needs to be addressed, we can try to provide a larger solution, whether it’s a letter to a federal agency or exploring legislation,” Hill says.

Hill recalls one especially difficult adoption case his office worked on, which eventually prompted Klobuchar to introduce legislation to streamline some elements of the international adoption process. The International Adoption Simplification Act, passed in 2010, made it easier for U.S. families to adopt an older sibling of the child they first adopted, and permits adoptees to be given the proper immunizations upon arriving in the U.S.

“That is absolutely one of the ultimate goals of doing this work,” says Sara Severs, who does communications and casework in Walz’s office. “To find out what things are not working, and if there’s a way we can fix it not just for that one constituent, but for everyone.”

No way around it: Casework pays off

But even if you buy that the intentions of the work are apolitical, it does have some political impact. If it didn’t, members of congress wouldn’t employ so many caseworkers.

Minnesota congressional staffs: number of caseworkers

OfficeDedicated caseworkersTotal staff
Franken543
Klobuchar843
Walz316
Kline314
Paulsen313
McCollum315
Ellison317
Emmer416
Peterson315
Nolan515

“I can’t speak to any political impact,” Hill says. “I can genuinely say it’s not something our office considers when helping people. I think casework is a core function of our office. … It can shine a positive light on our congressional offices, and remind people that there is someone there to help and someone who is willing to listen.”

There’s no way to tell for sure, of course, what kind of impact that casework specifically has on a lawmaker’s electoral fortunes. But in a tight election, that “positive light” Hill described will benefit the person with access to it — the incumbent.

Although members only directly assist a small handful of constituents, they eagerly publicize those success stories to perhaps win over those they didn’t help. Come election time, members remind voters in pamphlets and stump speeches of how casework has helped their friends and neighbors.

“For them to justify their continued existence, they do need to show they’re doing something to help the people,” Harkins says.

And, as Pommer’s example shows, that effort can pay off. Harkins recalls his mother bringing a complicated Medicare case to the attention of a North Carolina Republican congressman, and his caseworkers were able to resolve it through dogged persistence.

“Will my mother vote for that Republican every time? You bet. But he’s earned her vote. That’s what constituent services is mainly about.”

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