How Do Members Distribute Their MRA Spending?

 Illustration credit: Steven John Tomisek,
Illustration credit: Steven John Tomisek,

Blog post by Prof. Craig Goodman and Prof. David C.W. Parker

In a previous post, we argued that members of Congress use their Members Representational Allowance (MRA) to influence their constituents’ perceptions—frequently in hopes of improving their re-election chances. This claim grew from quantitative analysis we did in a 2009 Legislative Studies Quarterly article. We explored how legislators can choose how to spend their MRAs in subsequent 2010 article (gated) in Congress and the Presidency.

All members of Congress spend money on salaries, travel, office expenses, and franking (albeit a fewer number), which indicates that members find some benefit from this spending even if it does not affect election outcomes. Rather than examining the relationship between spending on official activities and election outcomes, we asked: does the use of official resources reflect the representational styles of members? Drawing on Richard Fenno’s (1978) research on home styles, we demonstrated that members’ spending choices reflected the emphasis they placed on winning re-election, creating good public policy, achieving institutional influence, and reaching out to constituents.

Congress established the Members Representational Allowance in the Legislative Branch appropriations act for FY1995.  The MRA marked a fundamental shift for legislators because it combined spending on travel, franking, office expenses, and salaries into a single line-item. Having a single line-item for all of these activities associated with legislators’ jobs created a zero-sum game where a dollar spent on franking is a dollar not available to spend on office expenses. All of the spending data is available through the Statement of Disbursements of the House, which is compiled on a quarterly basis, and we analyzed the patterns of official spending in the 104th to 108th Congresses (1995 to 2005).

Members of Congress are purposeful actors and since no members actually decline to use their MRA —the average member spent 93 percent of the MRA funds available each Congress although there was some variation— its use provides valuable insights into the representational decisions that members make. We converted all the amounts in constant (2000) dollars for easier comparison and over the time period we studied, members spent more on office expenditures than anything else, but spending on travel and franking combined is nearly equal to office expenditures. The average member spent $62,000 on travel in each Congress, but members from the Mountain West, for example, spent more than other members. The average member spent almost $93,000 on franked mail in each Congress, but that includes mass mailings and responses to constituents. Members in urban areas, such as Representatives Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Peter King (R-NY) were among the biggest spenders on franked mail. Fewer than 10 percent of members during this period spent nothing on mass mailings, but Republicans spending nothing on mass mailings outnumbered Democrats 2:1. We also see a change during this period — by the 108th Congress, spending on travel eclipsed spending on franked mail.

Re-election is one of the proximate goals for legislators, but we find no evidence that previous electoral margin affected how much members spend on travel. Members with narrow re-elections, however, did spend more on franked mail than those who won comfortably. Members with larger electoral margins spent more on office expenditures than members with narrow wins. Turning to some other goals that members have, we found that party leaders allocated more of their funds on franked mail (though not mass mail) while party leaders and committee chairs spend less on office expenditures, which makes sense given they can draw on other resources. Given the importance of fundraising and donating to other candidates, we found that members engaging in more of these activities expended more on maintaining robust office operations and less money on franked mail. In terms of policy goals, members who introduced more bills spent less money on travel and more money on franked mail.

The bottom line is simple: members have a variety of goals they seek to achieve in Congress and the decisions those members make about using their official resources provides reflects those goals. The zero-sum nature of the MRA allows members to decide what trade-offs are more important and adjust their representational decisions to both their careers (junior versus senior) as well as the nature of the district (distance, etc.).

In our next post, we shift our attention to examining how senators deploy their official resources.

Craig Goodman is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston-Victoria. David C.W. Parker is an associate professor of political science at Montana State University.