Costa doesn't spare expense for office, staff

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno runs the priciest congressional office in the Central Valley, newly available House records show.

The taxpayer dollars pay for everything from office rent and staff salaries to bottled water and constant travel. In 2010, Costa's office spending exceeded that of the 10 other House members who represent the area from Chico to Bakersfield.

"My official office expenditures are in compliance with House rules, and all expenses support my efforts to serve (my) constituents," Costa said Tuesday. "They remain my highest priority."

The House records, and a database compiled by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, make clear one thing: representative democracy ain't cheap. All told, the committees and individual offices of the House of Representatives spent upward of $1.3 billion last year. Salaries and benefits accounted for more than $1 billion of the total.

The Sunlight Foundation on Tuesday initially declared that Costa ranked third overall in the House for spending, but later withdrew that conclusion when data errors were discovered. Costa, irked, noted that this was "the second year in a row" that the Sunlight Foundation's initial numbers didn't fully add up.

But when used carefully with House records, the new database offers rich detail about where all the Capitol Hill dollars go.

For California lawmakers, in particular, cross-country airfare adds up.

"This demonstrates that travel is a significant expenditure for members serving the districts farthest away from Washington," Salley Wood, spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee, said of the spending figures Tuesday.

Even within a region, though, congressional spending can vary widely.

The office of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, for instance, spent about $128,000 on travel last year, triple the amount spent by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and more than any other Central Valley lawmaker. Nunes' chief of staff lives in the Valley and often flies to Washington.

The Valley's mass-mail champ, meanwhile, was Rep. John Garamendi. The Walnut Grove Democrat spent some $143,000 on mass mailings, which was nearly quintuple the amount spent by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and considerably more than other Valley representatives as well.

Garamendi used the mailers, in part, to promote various job fairs and town hall meetings he held throughout the year.

"Mailers are an effective way of informing constituents about opportunities to meet Congressman Garamendi and to access services our office provides," said Garamendi's spokesman, Donald Lathbury.

Politically, too, the public dollars can have a cost. Congressional challengers and others seeking to discredit House and Senate incumbents frequently invoke office spending as a sign of an out-of-control Congress.

Last year, for instance, Democratic challenger Bill Hedrick criticized the mass mailings sent by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside.

"Congressman Calvert shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars to prop up his image when he knows full well that Election Day is right around the corner," Hedrick declared during the campaign, sounding a common theme for challengers.

Democrats made the new spending comparisons possible by requiring the online publication of quarterly House disbursement reports starting in June 2009. Republicans, though, may take credit for an upcoming reduction in the spending totals.

Deficit-minded House GOP leaders have ordered committees to cut spending by at least 5 percent this year, which will likely mean smaller staffs.

"We are demonstrating to those struggling to make ends meet that we are listening and serious about fiscal responsibility," Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, said earlier this year.

Lungren chairs the House Administration Committee, which oversees day-to-day operations of the House and makes public individual reports.

ON THE WEB

The Sunlight Foundation database

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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