The San Diego Union-Tribune


LETTER FROM WASHINGTON DANA WILKIE
Spending their $1 million allowance

July 4, 2005

Each year, House members get an allowance to run their Washington and district offices – money to pay their staffs, buy computer equipment, travel to their districts, redecorate or whatever else they wanted to splurge on.

Roughly speaking, each House member last year got a $1.2 million office budget, which they could spend only on "official and representational" expenses, not for personal, campaign or political reasons.

Within those guidelines, however, lawmakers have considerable freedom. Nothing prohibits them, for instance, from flying first class if they'd like. If they want a $4,000 television – as Darrell Issa recently did – they can buy it. And they can pay their employees whatever they want.

"It may sound like a lot, but out of that you pay for the salaries of up to 18 staff members, you pay your postage, your rental space, your computer equipment," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the office budgets. "If you've reached your limit, then you're personally liable for" bills beyond that limit.

So what are San Diego's congressional members doing with their taxpayer-supported office budgets?

If you're Issa and you have a congressional office in Vista – just a stone's throw from Shadowridge Country Club – then you're coughing up $3,917 a month in rent, according to Issa's expense records.

If you're Duncan Hunter and working out of more humble surroundings in El Cajon, you're paying only $1,870 a month. Susan Davis' district office in City Heights costs $3,585 a month; Randy "Duke" Cunningham's in Escondido is $3,080; and Bob Filner's in Chula Vista is $3,605.

Lawmakers spend a considerable amount sending newsletters and other information to constituents, paying big bucks not only for postage and printing, but also for firms that maintain voter databases and that survey constituents on how they feel about issues before Congress.

In 2004, Issa spent $16,224 on a contract with the Greensburgh Group, a Costa Mesa company that maintains a database of registered voters and periodically canvasses them on issues before Congress. Issa spokesman Frederick Hill is careful not to call this sort of canvassing a "poll."

"There's a difference," Hill said. "We simply want to know what somebody's viewpoints are on a given issue. I don't think it's professional enough to be called polling."

Not surprisingly, members sometimes spend far more keeping in touch with their constituents during an election year than they do at other times. In 2004, when they were up for re-election, Issa and Hunter spent $67,752 and $42,983, respectively, sending mass mailings to constituents. In 2003, Issa spent far less – $25,636 – while Hunter spent a mere $4,288.

IT PAYS TO BE CHIEF OF STAFF

If you're fed up with your job, why not consider politics? You could do a lot worse: Issa chief of staff Dale Neugebauer earned more than $143,000 in 2004. Cunningham's top guy, David Heil, pocketed better than $136,000. Filner chief of staff Tony Buckles took home nearly $127,000. Hunter aide Victoria Middleton earned about $112,000. And Davis chief of staff Lisa Sherman made more than $109,000.

Never let it be said that your San Diego area representatives are technologically challenged. Filner spent almost $50,000 on computer equipment this past January and February. In the past 16 months, Issa – the multimillionaire consumer electronics enthusiast who never met a new gadget he didn't like – spent more than $91,000 for computer, phone, copying and video-conferencing equipment.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY TRAIL

Then there were the extras: For $637.70 a month, Cunningham leases a 2004 Ford Expedition, and he spends $725 a year for insurance.

In January, Davis spent $10,800 to train her staff in teamwork, speech writing and communications skills. "Susan's congressional office is always looking for ways to improve our skills so we can better serve the constituents of the 53rd district," Davis spokesman Aaron Hunter said.

In December 2003, Issa bought a $4,000 television and a $790 DVD recorder. In the final months of 2004, he paid $3,000 for a new office carpet and $2,425 for calendars from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

When all was said and done, who spent the most? That would have been Cunningham, who paid $1.23 million for his office expenses. Davis paid $1.21 million, Issa $1.19 million, Filner $1.13 million and Hunter $1.12 million.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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