Report No. 82-212 COV
CASEWORK I N A CONGRESSIORAL OFFICE
Analyst in American National. Government
December 1 4 , 1982
The Congressional Research Service works exclusively for
the Congress, conducting research, analyzing legislation, and
providing information at the request of committees, Members, and their staffs.
The Service makes such research available, without partisan bias, in many forms including studies, reports, compilations, digests, and background briefings. Upon request, CRS
assists committees in analyzing legislative proposals and
issues, and in assessing the possible effects of these proposals
and their alternatives. The Service's senior specialists and
subject analysts are also available for personal consultations
in their respective fields of expertise.
This paper presents a general overview of congressional office procedures
associated with handling casework, and the assistance provided by a Member of
Congress to help constituents in their dealings with Federal agencies.
discusses options for assisting Member's constituents, and the role of staff
and Members in providing casework services.
CASEWORK IN A CONGRESSIONAL OFFICE
Casework can be defined as assistance provided by a Member of Congress to
b e l p constituents in their dealings with Federal agencies.
involves individuals or groups of individuals, but, in some instances nay
involve State or local governiaental units, or, occasionally, a private
It is closely related to, but different from, grants and project
work, which usually concerns local governarental units or other organizations
(e.g-, corporations, universities, and research firms) that are competing for
in the forn of contracts, grants, loans or
unney from the Federal Gover-t
Some congressional offices, however, coabiae these
functions and call them "constituent services," or "case-project services,"
AN HISTORICAL FUNCTION
Members of Congress have always felt accountable to the people vho elected
Casework, or "constituent business" as it was sometfates called, was a
very early function for Members of Congress, as noted in the diaries of John
Quincy A d a m and James K. Polk.
Polk, for example, wrote of cases in which
he provided assistance, including claims for pensions, land claims, writing
letters for an appointment at West Point, and a search for a letter in a deadletter office. I/ These legislators did not have any staff to assist then;
1/ White, Leonard, The Jacksonians. New Pork, MacMillan, 1954. p , 144.
See aiso James KO folk and Ris Constituents, 1831-1832. A x ~ ~ i c aBistorical.
Review, v. 28, 1922-23* p. 68-77.
that was to come later.
Up until well into this century, legislators also
had to depend solely upon reports from the executive agencies for information.
In addition, the first Article in the Bill of Rights provides that
"Congress shall make no law
. . . abridging the . . . right of the people . . .
to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
In its first advisory
opinion, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct concluded that
the exercise of this right applies not only to petition by groups of citizens
with comon objectives, but also increasingly to people with problems or
complaints involving their personal relationship with the Federal Government.
As the population has grown and as the Government has enlarged
in scope and complexity, an increasing number of citizens find it
more difficult to obtaPn redress by direct communication with
administrative agencies. As a result, the individual turns
increasingly to his most proximate connection with his Government,
his representative in the Congress, as evidenced by the fact that
congressional offices devote more time to constituent requests than
to any other single duty.
The reasons individuals sometimes fail to find satisfaction from
their petitions are varied. At the extremes, some grievances are
simply imaginary rather than real, and some with merit are denied
for lack of thorough administrative consideration
Another factor which may lead to petitioner dissatisfaction is
the occasional failure of legisla~ivelanguage, or the administrative
interpretation of it, to coves adequately all the merits the
legislation intended. Specific cases arising under these conditions
test the legislation and provide a valuable oversight disclosure to
Further, because of the complexity of our vast federal structure,
often a citizen simply does not know the appropriate office to
For these, or similar reasons, it is logical and proper that the
petitioner seek the assistance of his Congressman for an early and
equitable resolution of his problem. 2/
2 1 House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Advisory Opinion
No. lLOn the Role of a Member of the House of Representatives in Communicating
with Executive and Independent Federal Agencies. Congressional Record, v. 116,
Jan. 26, 1970. p. 1077.
CASEWORK, AA'S, AND THE 1946 LEGISLATIVE REORGANIZATION ACT
By the 1940s it had become clear that attending to constituent needs was
consuming large blocks of Members' time.
In a report by the American Political
Association's Committee on Congress, published in 1945, this fact was
acknowledged and relief was called for.
In that same year, at hearings
before the Joint Committee on the Organization of the Congress, a number of
Members and observers testified about this problem.
To address it, many
witnesses advocated the appointment of an administrative assistant who would
assist Senators and Representatives in their office and departmental work.
Members reported spending from 50-80 percent of their time occupied with nonlegislative matters, including the handling of constituent requests before the
They urged deliverance from the growing burden of services to
A few even argued that Members should be forbidden altogether
from intervening on behalf of constituents. i /
In its report, the Joint Committee noted that "expansion of governmental
activities during the past 25 years has vastly increased the volume of
requests for service" from constituents. 51
It further stated that "while it
is true that the Constitution does not place this burden directly upon the
Congress, nevertheless service to constituents has long been an accepted part
31 American Political Science Association. Committee on Congress. The
of Congress. Washington, Public Affairs Press, 1945. p. 78-81.
41 U.S. Congress. Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.
organization of Congress. Hearings, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. Washington, U.S.
Govt. Print. Off., 1945.
51 U.S. Congress. Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.
0rganTzation of Congress. H. Rept. No. 1675, 79th Cong., 2d Sess. Washington,
U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1946. p. 15.
of the job of a Member of Congress." 61 This contact affords, said the
Committee, one of the few remaining direct links between the citizen and his
elected representative. Furthermore, it continued, no other agency or office
of Government can perform this service "so cheaply or with the patience,
understanding, and personal interest of congressional offices."
suggested alternative ways of rendering this service, therefore, the Committee
concluded that "it is neither possible nor advisable" 71 to do so.
Because in the past the Congress had already increased clerical assistance
to Members, the Committee recommended that there be appointed "a competent
assistant capable of assuming a large part of this service burden" so as to
release Menbers for the performance of their legislative duties.
When the Senate subsequently passed its version of the Legislative
Reorganization Act of 1946, it included a provision to that effect.
however, acted later and its version, which was accepted by the Senate due to
the lateness of the session, did not contain the provision.
was successfully argued by Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr., co-chairman of the
Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, which drafted the Legislative
Reorganization Act, that these assistants should be appropriated for because
the Senate had approved them.
appointed such assistants.
Within a short period of time, 91 of 96 Senators
Subsequently, administrative assistants were also
authorized for the staffs of House Members.
These actions were tantamount to statutory authority for caseworkers in
Since 1946, of course, their number has grown
commensurate with the magnitude of constituent requests for assistance in
Ibid., p. 16.
dealing with the many departments, agencies, and offices of the Federal
It is of both historical and current importance that casework has
been perceived as a legitimate, necessary, and irreplacable function of Members
and their staffs and that the Congress explicitly recognized this four decades
CRS AND CASEWORK
In its reorganization of the Congressional Research Service, the
Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (P.L.
91-510) increased somewhat the
resources available to Members for constituent services.
Section 203 (a)(5)
upon request, or upon its own initiative in anticipation of
requests, to prepare and provide information, research, and reference
materials and services to committees and Members of the Senate and
House of Representatives and joint committees of Congress to assist
them in their legislative and representative functions.
Most CRS assistance is related to legislation or oversight, however; CRS
assistance in casework is confined to furnishing readily available reports
and other materials for Members and staff to respond to constituent inquiries.
RELEVANT STATUTORY PROVISIONS
Other statutes which might affect the casework capabilities of a
congressional office are:
- 5 U.S.C.
3303, which prohibits appointing officers from considering
or receiving a recommendation other than as to character or
18 U.S.C. 201(c) and 201(g), which forbid Members from soliciting
or receiving a bribe or anything of value for or because of any
official act performed.
- 18 U.S.C.
203(a), which states that a Member may not be privately
remunerated for interventions on behalf of casework; it sets forth
directly or indirectly received or
agrees to receive, or asks, demands, solicits, or seeks,
any compensation for any services rendered or to be
rendered either by himself or another
. . .;
1) at a time when he is a member of Congress
2) at a time when he is an officer or employee of
the United States in the legislative
branch of the government
House Standards of Conduct Advisory Opinion No. I further notes:
The Committee emphasizes that it is not herein
interpreting this statute but notes that the law does refer
to any compensation, directly or indirectly, for services
by himself or another. In this connection, the Committee
suggests the need for caution to prevent the accrual to a
Member of any compensation for any such services which may
be performed by a law firm in which the Member retains a
The statutes cited above apply to officers and employees of the House of
Representatives as well as to Members.
Members of Congress are prohibited from ex parte communications (off-therecord communications by one party) and must abide by the rules which apply
to all citizens making inquiries to Federal agencies [5 U.S.C.
does not mean that they cannot contact agencies, but their communication may
be made public under the z p a r t e rules of a particular agency.
The House Advisory Opinion No. 1 also commented on a Member of Congress's
representations before Federal agencies:
This Committee is of the opinion that a Member of the House of
Representatives, either on his own initiative or at the request of a
petitioner, may properly communicate with an Executive or Independent
Agency on any matter to:
-- Request information or a status report;
-- Urge prompt consideration;
- Arrange for interviews or appointments;
- Express judgment;
- Call for reconsideration of an administrative response
which he believes is not supported by established law,
Federal Regulation or legislative intent;
Perform any other service of a similar nature in this
area compatible with the criteria hereinafter expressed
in this Advisory Opinion. 81
Finally, 18 U.S.C.
205 forbids Government officials from privately handling,
for renumeration, cases before Government tribunals on behalf of someone, but
allows Members of Congress to do so without compensation.
There are limits,
however, on such Member representation. For example, Members are prohibited
from appearing in maritime cases and before the Court of Claims and before
the now defunct Indian Claims Commission.
Members of Congress usually allocate casework responsibilities to one or
more staff members who perform the sometimes complicated task of solving
constituents' problems, or who at least investigate and refer them to other
sources which may provide some relief.
Most casework involves problems regarding social security checks,
benefits, and appeals; workmen's compensation claims, hearings, and appeals;
Advisory Opinion No. 1, p. 1078.
military service problems, such as a hardship discharge from the service;
veterans' pensions, loans and benefits; immigration problems; and other appeals
Although some problems appear to be more urgent than others, Members
are probably best served when all appeals for help from their constituents
are dealt with in a timely and personal way.
Frequently, when constituents seek assistance, they have probably done
everything they know how to do and are coming to the Member's office as a last
resort because they do not know where next to go for help. Often they feel
caught in a bureaucratic labryinth. Accordingly, they believe that a Member is
their last chance for relief.
Responding to constituents' complaints and problems can give a Member an
opportunity to determine whether the programs of the executive agencies are
functioning in accordance with legislative mandates.
Casework has the
~otential,therefore, to contribute to legislative oversight of agencies.
Consequently, some offices make it a practice to bring casework observations
to the attention of the pertinent authorizing counuittee(s),
particularly if a
pattern of variance from legislative intent become apparent.
Identifying the total problem should be the first step for a caseworker.
Sometimes individuals do not provide the whole story.
Occasionally people are
lacking in their ability to communicate, or they may forget or omit crucial
Obtaining such information enables the caseworker to proceed.
For example, a social security number and the age of a recipient, or time
and length of military service, may be necessary, certainly useful, in
The next important step in handling casework is developing a working
knowledge of Federal agencies.
With the current trend of more and more
casework being handled in district and State offices, it behooves caseworkers
in both the Washington office and the district and State offices to have
knowledge of the functions and structure of the relevant agency-in
words, what programs are available through which agencies, how are they
administered, and what current legislation affects program eligibility.
regional offices of Federal agencies are the best source of this information
for the district and State office caseworkers.
Each regional office usually
has a congressional liaison office, as well as one or more persons in program
Personal contacts with regional office personnel are
If casework is done in the Washington office, caseworkers might
find personal contact with the responsible national Federal agency personnel
to be beneficial.
Regardless of where casework is done, caseworkers should
know, and be able to tell constituents, their rights to appeal an adverse
decision from the agency and whether any other recourse, such as reapplying,
is available to them.
Members of Congress in increasing numbers seem to be receiving inquiries
from constituents dealing with subjects or programs within the jurisdiction of
State or local governments.
In such instances, the Member office must decide
upon an appropriate response to the constituent inquiry.
Most Member offices
routinely respond to constituent inquiries about local government issues by
referring the matter to local officials.
However, some Senate and House Members
have directed their district and State office staff to work in conjunction with
State legislative staff and local government staffs as a means toward more
efficient constituent services at the Federal, State, and local levels.
the various sources of assistance, Federal and non-Federal, including
social service agencies, welfare organizations and charities enable the
caseworker to assist constituents more fully and expeditiously.
Casework should be conducted with sensitivity to constituent's personal
privacy rights. Although neither the Freedom of Information Act nor the
Privacy Act apply to Congress, both may be used by caseworkers to seek Federal
department and agency records on behalf of constituents. The former law allows
any person to request otherwise unpublished documents or papers on any subject,
so long as the records being sought are reasonably described. The latter
statute permits an American citizen or permanent resident alien to seek agency
records or files ~ertainingexclusively to himself or herself.
conditions to the presumptive right of access are specified in both Acts.
General guidance to the Privacy Act is provided in an Office of Management
and Budget memorandum of October 3, 1975, concerning "congressional inquiries
which entail access to personal information subject to the Privacy Act."
recommends that, as a matter of policy, each agency, in administering the
Privacy Act, should adhere to the ~ositionthat disclosure may be made to a
congressional office from the record of an individual in response to an inquiry
from the congressional office made at the request of that individual.
A letter of request from a constituent can be used as a Privacy Act
release; or a form can be used stating, "I authorize Senator (or ~e~resentative)
to investigate my casz and to receive information connected
with it.'' An example of a form used by one Member's office follows:
PLEASE RETURN THIS FORM TO:
United States Senate (8ouse of ~e~resentatives)
Washington, D.C. 20510 (20515)
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I am aware that the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the
release of information in my file without my approval.
I authorize the
(name of Federal agency or department)
to provide information on my claim/case to Senator
or Claim number
If you wish information provided to parent, child, attorney, or other interested party, please indicate below.
- to receive
information from Senator 7Representative)relative to my claimlcase.
Privacy Act release form
The form must be sent to the constituent for signature and return.
contacting an agency in behalf of a constituent, a caseworker may say, "This
office has Mr.
's authorization to receive information about
Many agencies do not wish to see the form and will accept a verbal
If they do require a form, a copy can be sent.
Every caseworker should develop his or her own approach for analyzing the
nature of the constituent's problem at hand and how to generate the most
Knowing where to go first is a good beginning and can
Some caseworkers develop their own telephone listing of contacts
in the various agencies and retain the numbers of fellow Hill caseworkers
who can assist with a lead, a telephone number, or advice based o n their own
It is also essential to track cases.
manual or automated.
A casework tracking system can be
Tracking enables the caseworker to check progress on a
case (so-called tickler files).
Casework can provide a Member with examples of service to constituents
and, accordingly, should be brought to the Member's attention for possible use
when communicating with them.
Of particular value to the ember's press aide
are human interest stories with happy endings which are the result of the
intervention of the Member.
Reports on successful cases are sometimes included
The constituent's permission, of course, is required, but
because he or she is usually as pleased with the results as the Member, this
is seldom a problem.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD CASEWORKERS
Caseworkers should have some very special characteristics. They should be
personable, helpful, and able to elicit essential information from individuals
who may have trouble stating their problem.
They should also be compassionate,
realizing that those in need may be desperate when they contact the Member.
Finally, they should be well organized and know how to follow through.
When caseworkers read a letter, get a referral from other office staff, or
receive a phone call from a constituent, they should make certain that all
the relevant information needed to proceed is present.
If not, they have to
obtain it. Most caseworkers feel it is advisable to send an acknowledgement
by letter to the consitutent immediately upon receipt of the inquiry to let
him or her know that the Member is aware of the request and is inquiring into
the matter, and that the constitutent will be contacted again when some word
is forthcoming. This method establishes a basic office file in the name of
the constituent, and is also a means of requesting additional information
from the constituent, if needed.
The caseworker must then decide how best to transmit the case, either by
phone, buck-slip, or letter, to the proper agency.
The form of contact usually
depends upon the degree of urgency. Whichever way one gets the message across
to the agency, a case has to be tracked. While a letter usually is sent to the
agency's head from the Member, it frequently helps to contact key agency staff
likely to respond to a casework request.
It is important for the caseworker
to follow up on a case when no response has been received after a reasonable
amount of time. Even if there is no word from the agency, an interim response
should be sent to the constituent advising that the Member is still working
on the case.
When the agency finally renders its determination, caseworkers
have to read it as if they were the constituents.
so that it is simple and direct is an essential task of casework.
Casework is not a one-person operation in a congressional office.
requires cooperation with the administrative assistant, legislative assistants,
grants and projects staff, the office manager, the press secretary, the
receptionist, and the Member's personal secretary, as well as staff in the
district or State office(s).
A caseworker's contribution to the other
functions of the office can be very meaningful, as in telling the press
secretary of a noteworthy case or pinpointing for legislative staff a law
that may need changing.
When a case is finished, it is usually either good news or bad news for
Successful resolutions of constituent problems, more than
anything else, are rewarding to the constitutent, the Member and the
But there are times when it is not possible to achieve what the
constituent has requested.
Perhaps it is the appropriate denial of a loan, or
an appointment to an academy granted to someone else, or an agency, well within
its rights, not changing its mind about benefits.
Caseworkers should know when
to relent, when it is no longer worth the Member's or their time to continue.
Non-Federal sources might be helpful in such instances.
On the other hand,
caseworkers should know when to persist in the face of agency recalcitrance and
do their utmost to find out and inform constituents of their rights to appeal,
to reapply, to request an evaluation of their application, or a review of
their eligibility, and to seek any other recourse possible.
HANDLING CASES WHEN CLOSING A CONGRESSIONAL OFFICE
While the Member is still in office, closed cases may be kept on file for
Open cases, on the other hand, are those that are not
resolved or concluded when the Member leaves office.
options with regard to these cases.
A Member has a number of
He/she may pass on open cases to his/her
successor, assuming the successor is willing, and the constituent has granted
Sometimes however, this is not politically desirable.
Member of the House may transfer open cases to one of the State's Senators,
assuming a Senator is amenable.
Or, rarely, open cases may be transferred to
another Member of Congress after the approval of the constituent involved in
the case has been obtained.
Usually, Members deal only with cases from their
The files may be turned over to another office by
transferring the files and informing the liaision offices that another Member
will be taking over the cases.
Nearly all congressional liaison offices in
executive agencies will accept and follow instructions of the outgoing Member.
The one exception, the Veterans Administration, will automatically close all
pending cases when a Member of Congress leaves office.
If there are no
instructions, some liaison offices will continue the case with the succeeding
Member from the State or District.
Unless instructed otherwise by the departing
Member, other liaison offices may continue to work on each case to conclusion,
communicating only with the constituent.
When a Member leaves office, it is
advisable to check with the liaison office of each agency where any cases are
In addition, a Member could also return each case file to the
constituent, with a letter explaining that he or she is leaving office and is
no longer in a position to follow the case to a conclusion.