Congress Health Overhaul

FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2017 file photo, the Capitol is seen at sunup in Washington.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) 

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders recently quashed talks of raising their own salaries amid public backlash, but little attention is paid to how much they spend each year to run their offices — an amount that fluctuates based on several factors and can be increased with little public scrutiny.

Together, Louisiana's six House members and two senators have racked up nearly $13.5 million in office expenses in a one-year period — the bulk of it going to staff salaries.

Most members themselves are paid $174,000 annually, but they can spend much more than that to run their offices in Washington and back home. The amount varies from member to member depending on their distance from Washington, local office space costs and how many constituents they have. The perks include being able to regularly send mail back home that can boost re-election hopes, hiring people who go on to become campaign strategists and hosting events for constituents.

Out of Louisiana's delegation, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, was the most thrifty lawmaker in 2018, with $1.2 million in total office expenditures, according to records obtained from the U.S. House and Senate for the past year.

In the House, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, an Alto Republican who is currently running for governor, spent the most at $1.336 million.

The state's two Republican U.S. Senators, Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge and John Kennedy of Madisonville, receive significantly more money to spend because they represent the entire state. Senate records show Cassidy's office spent $3.1 million in from April 2018 to May 2019, and Kennedy's spent nearly $2.8 million in that time period.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, is the longest-serving member of the state's delegation and spent most of the past year as a part of the majority until Democrats took control of the House in January. His office budget reflects that added stature, with a separate budget for his leadership office that spent more than $2 million when the GOP controlled the House and Scalise was the No. 3 in leadership.

An analysis from the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan organization that provides information to members, found that the average House allowance in 2018 was about $1.36 million — a number that has risen from less than $1 million in 2000 but is less than its height of more than $1.5 million in 2010. The Senate average is about twice that at $3.3 million.

Members generally are given broad discretion with how their office allowance is spent, but there are some restrictions — none of it can go to personal or campaign expenses, and lawmakers have to cover their own expenses personally if they go over the amount they are given.

Records show that part of why Higgins maintained the tightest budget was because he paid his staff the least. His salary costs for the year were about $933,655. The congressman who paid the most, at $1.4 million, was Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, whose chief of staff and deputy chief of staff received pay bumps in the fourth quarter of 2018, after Democrats won control of the House in the mid-term races.

On the Senate side, records show that Cassidy, who has been in the Senate since 2015, spent about $140,000 on travel over the past year, including trips back and forth between his home in Baton Rouge and the Capitol in Washington. Kennedy, who took office in 2017, spent nearly $200,000 on travel.

The records also show how frequently members use their franking privileges, a method of sending mail to constituents at no cost with just the lawmaker’s signature. Franked mail has at times been the subject of scrutiny as it’s seen as a way for incumbents to indirectly campaign by direct mail to homes in their district touting their accomplishments, but such mail is allowed as long as it doesn’t directly request a vote or political support.

Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, leaned heavily on his franking privilege accumulating nearly $64,800 in franked mail charges in 2018, according to House records. Nearly half of that was in the third quarter leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections.

Click here to view House members' office expenditures for 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, as reported by House officials.

Click here to view U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy's office expenditures from April 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019.

Click here to view U.S. Sen. John Kennedy's office expenditures from April 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019.

Acadiana Business Today: How much of your taxpayer dollars does it take for a Louisiana congressman to run his office?; Louisiana treasurer withholding $25M planned for expenses, threatening hole in state budget

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.