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Congressional Democrats Are Maxing Out Their Office Budgets, Too

April 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

When it comes to spending, no one does it like congressional Democrats.

And that includes their outlays at the office.

A survey of all 435 House members found that the 21 who expended the biggest percentage of their office budgets were all Democrats.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., went so far as to dive into the red. The 13-term civil-rights veteran racked up $1,482,469 in office expenses last year -- $8.563 more than he budgeted.

No. 2 was Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who spent 99.9 percent of his annual office budget. The flamboyant Chicago congressman gained added notoriety last month when he was escorted off the House floor for donning a hoodie in a demonstration of support for slain Sanford teen Trayvon Martin.

No. 4 was Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The 10-term lawmaker's office outlay of $1,423,791 represented 99.4 percent of her budget -- just 0.1 percentage point less than the share spent by Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y.

Brown's office did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.

Though some lawmakers spent more in raw dollars last year, the survey by USA Today and the Sunlight Foundation ranked members strictly according to the spending against their budget.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, earned the dubious distinction of being the GOP congressman who used the biggest share of his office budget. Coming in at No. 22 -- behind 21 Democrats -- Stearns' outlays were $1,413,546, or 96.5 percent of budget.

But Stearns' office payroll of $880,160 was among the lowest in Congress. Most members spent more than $1 million on payroll alone.

(Members' $174,000 annual salaries are not included in the office budgets.)

Stearns' press secretary, Paul Flusche, told Sunshine State News:

Representative Stearns has given back money every year for 23 years and that is even with his frequent town meeting notices, which add to his expense. This fiscal responsibility was recognized just last week when the National Taxpayer Union presented Stearns with the Taxpayers Friend Award.

"Today, very few members of Congress, including our senators, hold town meetings, while Representative Stearns has held over 570 town meetings because he believes that citizens should be able to ask him questions in an open forum, Flusche said.

The rest of the Florida delegation mirrored the national pattern, with the state's six Democratic representatives spending bigger shares of their budgets than their 19 Republican counterparts. (See a delegation breakdown in the attachment below.)

No Florida Democrat's expenditures weighed in at less than 87.8 percent of budget (Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa), while 13 Republicans spent smaller shares.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, was the most frugal in the delegation, coming in $489,186 under budget. Only Reps. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., left more unspent ($542,686 and $581,992, respectively).

In percentage terms, Webster used just 65.58 percent of his office budget.

"We held town hall meetings instead of doing glossy mailers," the freshman congressman explained to USA Today.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, joined Webster in the "bottom 10" of spenders nationally, using just 73 percent of his office budget.

"Individuals and families across Florida and the nation work hard with their own budgets to make ends meet, and Congress should be no different," Crenshaw told Sunshine State News.

"I bring that approach to my office budget, analyzing it line-by-line to determine an operating plan that will enable me to use taxpayer dollars to effectively and responsibly represent the constituents of Florida's 4th Congressional District," said the six-term congressman who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

By contrast, three Democrats in the Florida delegation spent 90 percent or more of their office budgets. In addition to Brown, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, spent 94.4 percent and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fort Lauderdale, used 90.7 percent.

All three had office payrolls in excess of $1 million.

In fact, Rep. Alcee Hastings, who spent 94.4 percent of his office allocation, had the highest payroll among the Florida delegation at $1.146 million.

Hastings' office includes Patricia Williams, who earned $166,000 last year as deputy director and has been listed as his girlfriend by the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

To put the Democrat-GOP gap in perspective, Brown left just $8,063 unspent last year while Stearns, the survey's "biggest" spending Florida Republican, still managed to leave $50,634 on the table.

Twelve Florida Republicans used less than $1.268 million in office funds. No Florida Democrat was under that amount, and only Castor ($1,272,922) came close.

Ironically, Florida's three top Democratic spenders represent among the safest districts. Brown and Hastings, both black, are virtually protected by Voting Rights laws that enshrine majority-minority constituencies. Wasserman Schultz, who also chairs the Democratic National Committee, is comfortably ensconced in a heavily Jewish, dark blue district.

Lawmakers who spent 95 percent or more of their budgets will feel a pinch if they don't scale back. Congress this year is imposing a 6.4 percent cut in office budgets, which averaged $1.45 million last year.

From that standpoint, Florida's congressmen will need to keep a sharp eye on their costs. Sixteen of the delegation's 25 lawmakers, led by Rep. Connie Mack's $1,534,069, had above-average budgets in 2011.

According to congressional rules, any outlays over budget must be repaid to the U.S. Treasury out of the member's pocket. Unspent office funds are returned to the Treasury after a two-year wait to pay off any late-arriving bills.

See full congressional spending list here.

Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341. Jim Turner contributed to this story.

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