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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: The only part of Congress that seems to work are the staffers who return your calls | COMMENTARY

Congress is broken. You’ve heard that before, but the condition is more acute than ever.

When they’re in power, Republicans stand for nothing but cutting taxes for the wealthy; when they’re not, they thwart everything that comes from Democrats, even if the initiatives would benefit Republican constituents in the transformative way Obamacare has. (See Harris, Andy, R-Maryland-1st.)

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Meanwhile, the Democrats have two senators, Coal Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the bizarre Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are obviously determined to stifle their own party’s progressive agenda and keep the nation in its current state of meh.

The Gallup polling organization says that, on average, two out of 10 Americans approved of Congress over the last decade and, when measured in October, the rating of the current Congress stood at 21%. It certainly will fall further in the next survey, coming after the Republican/Manchin/Sinema blockade of voting rights protections, President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and the scrapping of the Senate filibuster rule.

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But you’ve heard this before, too: Americans hate Congress but love the representatives they keep sending there. And if “love” is too strong a word, you might agree that Americans at least believe that the men and women they elect to Congress will help them when they need a little constituent service.

That’s where I’m going with this because, just as the current Congress affirmed its willingness to do next to nothing to make this a better country, I received an annual report that shed light on the scope of constituent services provided by a Maryland congressional office. It came from Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents the 2nd District, with more than 780,000 constituents in parts of four counties and Baltimore.

Ruppersberger has 15 full-time and two part-time staffers, based in either Timonium or Washington, to serve people in Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and the city. The constituent service they provide is aside from any legislative work they’re asked to handle.

In case you’re wondering what those people make: According to a House office that tracks compensation, the average salary of a House staffer in 2021 was $59,000, and I’ll bet that surprises a lot of Americans — maybe most — who think those employed by Congress pull down much bigger bucks than that. (Members of the House and Senate make $174,000 per year.)

Americans also commonly believe that members of Congress are inaccessible, or only all-ears for lobbyists and other campaign donors. But the numbers Ruppersberger furnished show quite a bit of public access — not directly, but through staffers — and they suggest that most of us do not know how much those federal employees do.

According to the annual report for 2021, Ruppersberger’s staff received and responded to more 32,000 calls and letters from constituents, nearly 3,000 requests for help of some kind and nearly 1,700 pleas specifically for help with freeing up unemployment benefits stuck in Maryland’s bureaucracy.

Before I go on, a note: I did not seek out this report and apparently it’s not something Ruppersberger’s staff assembles for the public every year. I assume a lot of the work of Rupperserberger’s staff is typical of what takes place in all congressional offices, including those of Maryland’s other seven House members.

But 2021 was a particularly busy one for constituent calls — even more so than 2020, the first year of the pandemic — and Ruppersberger wanted everyone to know how hard his staff works.

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While this might sound like campaign fluff — Ruppersberger turns 76 on Jan. 31 and will run for an 11th term this year — the report shows an aspect of congressional service that hardly ever gets a mention in the media. Once in a while, attention must be paid.

Besides, I always find it interesting to know or affirm the problems people face or the trends they experience. There are ways of doing that — observe the docket in any courtroom of the District Court of Maryland, eavesdrop on an MTA bus, talk to a bartender. But you can also get it from a congressional office.

The report from Ruppersberger shows — no surprise here — that the pandemic and the widely reported problems with mail delivery made up a lot of the constituent work in 2021. Staffers are forever helping senior Marylanders navigate Social Security and Medicare and helping veterans get their benefits. But the pandemic’s effect on businesses and workers and the changes wrought in the U.S. Postal Service during the Trump administration added to the workload.

“We opened more than twice as many cases on behalf of 2nd district constituents as we did in 2020,” says Jaime Lennon, Ruppersberger’s communications director. “Postal Service complaints helped account for the increase as did pandemic-related cases such as missing stimulus checks and assisting small businesses with loans and other relief programs.”

Granted — and hopefully — 2021 was not a typical year in the life of this country. But it’s a big country, with lots of complex problems, including, at times, a government of good intent and poor execution.

Note: Most of the complaints and problems that come to a congressional staff are related to the government, not the general society. So what we have here is one part of government, staffers on the legislative side, making another part, the federal bureaucracy, serve people as designed. As characters in the old comics used to ask, “Is dis a system?” Yes, and the congressional staffers make it work.


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