Karen Masterson, Congressional Correspondent
Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
2003 IRE National Conference
TIP SHEET: Measuring whether Lawmakers are Doing Their Job, Places
to Gather Data
- Federal agencies charged with responding to casework.
Congressional caseworkers, who typically work in lawmakers' home district
offices, write to federal agencies on behalf of constituents needing everything
from Social Security checks and veterans' benefits to low-income housing loans
and green cards. These caseworkers cut through red tape and produce results
far faster than the average citizen can on his or her own. The volume of
casework performed is a good measure of a congressional office's efficiency.
You can FOIA federal agencies for the number of cases opened by lawmakers.
FOIA each agency separately.
- Legislative Resource Center (202-226-5200), basement of the
Cannon House Office Building. This office has quarterly
disbursement reports that are invaluable. They give names of all staff members,
their salaries and how lawmakers use their budgets. The reports are particularly
useful for measuring staff turnover. When turnover is high, there's a good
chance constituents aren't being taken care of. The center also keeps records
of lawmakers' personal finances.
- Legislative Counsel (202-225-6060). This
nonpartisan office rewrites legislative proposals into legal code - a process
that takes place before a bill or amendment can be formally introduced. The
lawyers in this office know a great deal about the competency of high-profile
lawmakers. And while these lawyers don't talk to the press, they do talk with
other congressional staffers, who are willing to pass information to reporters...
- Congressional Management Foundation (202-546-0100,
). This nonprofit, nonpartisan group produces useful
reports that identify trends in congressional staffing and other areas. The
reports provide a benchmark for measuring an individual lawmaker's performance.
- Former staffers (names can be found in disbursement books
mentioned above). Those who used to work for a lawmaker
you're writing about make great sources, especially if they've left the business.
Staffers who have merely moved to another congressional office will be shy
about providing negative information and are unlikely to let you use their
- Current staffers who handle day-to-day constituent services.
Get past the flak! Most offices prefer to have all press calls go through
these seasoned spin doctors. Ask to talk to the chief of staff, who, in most
offices, works directly with groups in the home district and often handles
the highest profile or most difficult constituent cases. Don't take no for
- Community activists and neighborhood associations.
They tend to be results oriented. These individuals will complain if a
lawmaker has fails to do his or her job, particularly when it comes to getting
funding for community projects.
- Editors of local newspapers and community newsletters.
Be careful here because often these smaller publications are pushing an
agenda. But these local editors can also be very valuable. They keep up with
community gossip and may be able to direct you to real constituents with real
problems not being taken care of by their elected officials.