Does Congress need an ombudsman to look after its case work?
By Ralph Nader
Want to see Republicans and Democrats come together?
Just revive legislation introduced in 1965 by prominent Wisconsin Democrat Henry S. Reuss – An Administrative Counsel of Congress (H.R. 4273) (see sidebar) – informally called an Ombudsman or Tribune of the People. The Administrative Counsel, as an arm of Congress, would handle part of the “casework” to “lighten the burden of Congressmen and aid
Congressman Reuss saw “casework” so burdensome on staff and limited office budgets “that it interferes with more important legislative and policy-making functions.”
Fifty-seven years later, casework is more alive than ever. Walk into congressional offices and you will see staff jammed together, with their computers and phones, dealing with personal constituent complaints. Same for staff back in the district offices.
Reuss pointed out that it takes time from Representatives and Senators as well. He referred to cases such as requests for as- sistance in dealing with federal agencies, including Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration, railroad retirement, draft board problems, and immigration cases. For many of these citizens, their Members of Congress were their last resort.
The population of each Congressional district has grown from 410,000 in 1963 to about 760,000 today. And the complexities of citizen interaction with the federal bureaucracy has become more demanding on Congressional offices.
For example, the number of staff working in Senator’s offices on Capitol Hill and in state offices has almost doubled since the 1960s, but Senate staff still only numbers about 4,000 – or an average of 40 per Sena- tor. This number does not include Commit- tee staff or leadership staff. Add those and you are up to a total of 5,713 Senate staff. (Senate Staff Levels in Member, Commit- tee, Leadership and Other Offices, Congressional Research Service, October 19, 2020.)
Total House staff stood at 6,329 in 2020 – or an average of only 15 per member. To- tal House staff, including Committee and Leadership staff, stood at 9,034 in 2020. (House of Representatives Staff Levels, Congressional Research Service, September 2, 2021).
As introduced, the Administrative Counsel would receive the cases from members, process them and return them to the members for review and response back to their constituents.
In this way, members could avail them- selves of the Counsel’s expertise and still take credit for case resolutions, while reducing burdens on staff.
An important added benefit would come from the pooling of complaints by the Counsel to discern patterns demanding reform or cessation of such practices. Counsel would recommend changes to federal agencies and departments, and if needed, recommend broader legislative corrections.
With his typically thorough explanation, Representative Reuss grounded his proposal in the Constitution’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging. . .the right of the people. . .to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The response by his colleagues took the popular Congressman aback. It was overwhelmingly negative and bipartisan. Members were not about to let go of their control of their response to private citizens asking for help the latter would never forget. It was and is seen as a re-election given.
Never mind the more expert treatment they could take credit for in their response. Never mind the value of the Counsel discovering patterns or trends calling for reform stemming from the aggregations of individual cases. And never mind freeing more staff for the primary purposes of their legislative job description. Members of Congress wished to call out the agencies directly and display their prowess on these personal matters mishandled by the federal bureaucracy.
H.R. 4273 and its companion bill S. 984, introduced by Senator Claiborne Pell (D- Rhode Island) never went anywhere. With the Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) era’s staff and committee budget cuts in 1995 and 1996 still bedeviling Congressional capacities, mem- bers are still mired in the same zero sum game of attending to their legislative and big time oversight duties and casework.
No such tensions occur, however, with what to do when constituents send non-personal substantive communications on poli- cies and Members’ practices. Ignore them. Do not even acknowledge their receipt. It has become part of the “incommunicado” culture on Capitol Hill. Over and over again, people tell us of these discourtesies, these affronts from supposed public servants.
After a while, people stop trying to get through to their member of Congress al- together, even ones whose political leanings are congenial with that of the citizen’s. They see a voicemail Congress as hopelessly beyond reach.
In 2019, the House of Representatives established a small Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Its relatively low profile may indicate contemplation over matters long rejected, before recommendations are made. At least we can entertain that prospect.