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CRS Re ort for Con ess
A Congressional Office of
Constituent Assistance: Proposals,
Rationales, and Possible Objections
Frederick M. Kaiser
Specialist in American National Government
December 18, 1991
Congressional Research Service • The Library of Congress
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.
A CONGRESSIONAL OFFICE OF CONSTITUENT ASSISTANCE:
PROPOSALS, RATIONALES, AND POSSmLE OBJECTIONS
Concerns about the growing volume and complexity of casework, increasing
demands of constituent service, and appearances of conflicts of interest when
legislators intervene directly before administrative agencies have generated
proposals to create a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance. Such an
Office could vary in terms of its overall functions, duties, responsibilities, and
institutional location, depending upon its mandate, structure, and authority.
Nonetheless, it would have a primary mission of responding to constituent
complaints, grievances, and inquiries about administrative actions or failures to
act that are submitted to it by Members of Congress. Under this system,
legislators would control the requests from and followup notification to
constituents, even though the actual work would be performed outside their own
offices. A separate Constituent Assistance Office could thus allow legislators to
receive credit for favorable responses to constituent complaints, since Members
would transmit them to the new Office for resolution, while avoiding blame for
unsatisfactory results, since a separate professional office would have been
responsible for them and not the Member's. A Constituent Assistance Office
could also address concerns over the appearance of a conflict of interest when
legislators intervene directly before administrators on behalf of constituents and
others. Such an Office, outside the immediate control of individual legislators,
would help to prevent this problem from arising in the first place.
Along with these possible benefits, service to constituents could be handled
more efficiently and effectively through an Office whose personnel were
experienced and trained in casework and were specialists in certain agencies or
programs. Congress's oversight capability could also be enhanced by an Office
that consolidated-and reported-relevant information, data, and statistics on
patterns of administrative actions, abuses, and inefficiencies. The Office could
also be empowered to make recommendations for corrective action, and, thereby,
help to improve service to constituents.
Proposals along these lines, however, have not been adopted and opposition
could surface for several reasons. First of all, legislators might be reluctant to
transfer casework (and its perceived benefits) to an office outside their
immediate control. In addition, the Constituent Assistance Office's resources
and funding, whose amounts are uncertain, would either come from existing
Member accounts or would require an increase in legislative branch operating
expenses overall. Both options have drawbacks.
Objections might also arise over whether the new Office would be permitted
to issue conclusions and recommendations about agency-wide or broad-scope
problems or be confined to responding only to individual casework requests.
Finally, the answer to the question of which congressional offices-Members
only or Members plus committees and subcommittees-could submit requests to
the Constituent Assistance Office would affect its capacity, range of
responsibilities, effectiveness, and impact.
A CONGRESSIONAL OFFICE OF CONSTITUENT ASSISTANCE:
PROPOSALS, RATIONALES, AND POSSmLE OBJECTIONS
Interest in creating a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance,
sometimes referred to as an Office of Ombudsman or of Administrative Counsel,
has been renewed for several reasons: i.e., the growing volume of casework and
other constituent services in Member offices, the difficulties encountered in
dealing with a wide variety and large number of Government agencies and
programs, and concerns over the appearance of a conflict of interest when
legislators intervene directly with administrative agencies on behalf of
constituents. This report describes the basic characteristics and variations that
such an Office could take; and it suggests rationales for its establishment. l The
overview also cites current and past legislative proposals along these lines and
summarizes some of the possible objections to creating this type of an Office.
Although a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance would have a
basic function to perform-that is, to respond to constituent complaints and
grievances about administrative actions or inactions, submitted by legislators-it
could be assigned other related duties and responsibilities as well. Depending
upon its mandate, moreover, requests could be made by congressional panels and
other organizations, not just by individual Members. And the new Office could
be placed in different organizational settings in the legislative branch.
For background information on a congressional office, see, among others,
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Study on
Federal Regulation. Volume II. Congressional Oversight of Regulatory
Agencies. Senate Document No. 95-26; 95th Cong., 1st Sess. Washington, U.S.
Govt. Print. Off., 1977. p. ix and 64-65; U.S. Congress. Senate. Commission
on the Operation of the Senate. Toward a Modem Senate (Final Report).
Senate Document No. 94-278; 94th Cong., 2d Sess. Washington, U.S. Govt.
Print. Off., 1976. p.-50; John R. Johannes. "Casework in the House." In:
Joseph Cooper and C. Calvin Mackenzie (eds.). The House at Work. Austin,
University of Texas Press, 1981; John R. Johannes. To Serve the People:
Congress and Constituency Service. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press,
1984. p. 212-229; and U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research
Service. Congressional Intervention in the Administrative Process. Report No.
90-440 A, by Morton Rosenberg and Jack H. Maskell, Washington, 1990.
Functions, Duties, and Requesters
A Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance would respond to
constituent complaints, grievances, and inquiries about Federal administrative
actions or failures to act. These would be referred to the Office by Senators and
Representatives and, possibly, by congressional committees and subcommittees
or even congressional caucuses, depending upon the Office's mandate. (Inquiries
from congressional panels or caucuses, if permitted, would presumably arise
from grievances or complaints about Government services from the general
public, such as those generated by delays in entering the United States at ports
of entry and border crossing stations, difficulties encountered in filing social
security claims or receiving benefits, backlogs in processing passports, and the
As its priority function, therefore, a Constituent Assistance Office would
handle casework, which is now largely the responsibility of individual Member
offices. The findings and conclusions from each investigation would then be
reported to the congressional office that submitted the request, which, in turn,
would transmit them to the constituent. The Constituent Assistance Office
could also be authorized to look into a broader range of related matters, such as
those connected to agency procedures and operations in dealing with the general
public or clienteles.
In addition, the new Office could be directed to consolidate----and report to
Congress-information, data, and statistics about administrative activities and
services provided by different Government departments, agencies, and other
entities. An analysis of this information could reveal patterns of administrative
inefficiencies or abuses among agencies and types of programs. This collection
of data and analysis could be reported on a regular basis, annually or
semiannually, to Congress. Specialized reports about particularly serious or
widespread problems could be submitted to the committees and subcommittees
with jurisdiction for the offending agency or the troubled program, along with
copies to the agency itself.
Finally, the Constituent Assistance Office could be empowered to issue
conclusions about administrative procedures and agency operations in serving
the public, as well as recommendations for corrective action. These could lead
to changes taken either directly by the administrative agencies themselves or by
Congress through new legislation, to prevent similar problems from arising in
A Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance would, of course, be
located in the legislative branch. (By contrast, the ombudsman offices that
exist in the Federal Government are housed in the agencies themselves. 2) Such
See David R. Anderson and Diane M. Stockton. The Ombudsman in
Federal Agencies: The Theory and Practice. Administrative Conference of the
United States, Washington, 1990; Linda Gaglio. "Ombudsmen." Government
an Office, however, could be placed in four different organizational settings on
Capitol Hill, depending upon whether it would respond to requests from all
legislators or separately from only House or Senate Members:
it could be a single entity attached to the Congress itself, serving
Members from both Houses;
it could be attached to an existing legislative agency, such as the
General Accounting Office, also serving Members from both Houses;
each chamber could have a separate office serving only its own
either the House or the Senate could have its own office, if only that
one chamber established an Office of Constituent Assistance to serve
its own Members exclusively.
The institutional setting of the Constituent Assistance Office would affect
its capacity and capabilities. For instance, a single Office serving all Members
of Congress would consolidate requests, followup investigations, and reports for
the entire Congress; it would, therefore, have a broader and more reliable base
of information and data on which to develop conclusions and recommendations
for corrective action than separate Offices in each chamber would. A Congresswide Office would also avoid the duplication of effort that would result from two
separate Offices responding to a similar or identical inquiry submitted by a
constituent independently to both the Senate and House Member offices.
By comparison, if either or both chambers established separate Constituent
Assistance Offices, it would be limited to inquiries and followup investigations
based only on inquiries from its own chamber's Members. This would prevent
it from consolidating information or developing conclusions and
recommendations based on requests from the entire Congress; and its reports
would go only to its own chamber's committees and subcommittees, thereby
limiting its effectiveness. Two separate Constituent Assistance Offices (one for
each the House and Senate), moreover, might be unable to process casework as
efficiently as a single Office serving all legislators could; this is because an Office
in each chamber might duplicate the other's efforts when the same constituent
inquiry is submitted to both a Senator and Representative. Nonetheless, a
separate Office in each chamber would serve only one master, simplifying its
supervision, and could be implemented if only one chamber wanted to act.
Executive, v. 23, March 1991. p. 36-39; and Gerald E. Caiden. International
Handbook of the Ombudsman: Country Surveys. Westport, CT, Greenwood
Press, 1983. p.209-217.
Three proposals along these lines-two bills introduced in the 93d Congress
(H.R 7680 and S. 2500) and one in the 102d Congress (S.1649)-illustrate some
of the possible variations a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance or
similar office could take. Differences exist in titles, duties, functions, specific
reporting obligations, and eligible requesters for an office which would handle
constituent inquiries, complaints, and grievances about administrative actions.
The early proposals followed efforts in the late 1960s to create offices of
ombudsman or other complaint-handling devices directly in administrative
agencies; these sought to improve and standardize agency responsiveness to a
growing number of citizen grievances. 8 The 1973 proposals for a congressional
office to handle constituent complaints focused on its perceived need in the
absence of such administrative ombudsmen and in light of the increasing
amount of casework in Member offices. The 1991 initiative revived this same
objective, that is, to meet the continuing escalation of casework and other
constituent services, resulting from the increases in citizens and government
programs. The recent proposal also added another anticipated benefit from a
Constituent Assistance Office: it would reduce or eliminate the appearances of
conflicts of interest when legislators intervene directly with agencies. 4
93d Congress Bills for a Congressional Ombudsman and Congressional
Office of Constituent Assistance
In 1973, Representative Wayne Owens sponsored H.R. 7680 to establish an
Office of Congressional Ombudsman. If approved, the Office would have been
directed to "do casework referred to it by Members of Congress, keep records of
the agencies and laws involved and the pertinent circumstances of the cases,
report this information to Congress, and. make recommendations which might
enable Congress to better. discharge its responsibilities to oversee the
administration of laws . . . "
8 For such proposals, see, among others, Stanley Anderson. Ombudsman
Papers: American Experience and Proposals. Berkeley, CA, Institute of
Governmental Studies, University of California, 1969;' Ake Sandler. "An
Ombudsman for the United States." Annals, v. 377, May 1968; American
Assembly. Ombudsmen for American Government. Englewood Cliffs, NJ,
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968; and U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the
Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure.
Ombudsman. Hearings pursuant to S. Res. 190, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., March 7,
1966 .. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1966; Administrative Ombudsman.
Hearings on S. 1195, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., January 16, 1968. Washington, U.S.
Govt. Print. Off., 1968'; and Regional Ombudsman Proposal. Hearings pursuant
to S. Res. 232 on S. 3123, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., March 27-28 and May 10, 1968.
Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1968.
4 See Dennis DeConcini.
Remarks in the Senate on S. 1649, Office of
Constituent Assistance Act. Congressional Record, Daily Edition, v. 137, August
2, 1991. p. S12204-S12207.
Also in the 93d Congress, Senator Vance Hartke introduced S. 2500 to
establish an Office of Constituent Assistance. At the request of any Member,
committee, or subcommittee, the Office would have conducted appropriate
investigations of an administrative action which, among other reasons, might be
"contrary to law or regulation; unreasonable, unfair, or oppressive; mistaken in
law or arbitrary in ascertaining the facts; unclear or inadequately explained; or
inefficiently performed." The Office would also have reported its findings to the
requesting legislator or panel and made an annual report to Congress
summarizing the issues and number of inquiries per issue under investigation.
Along with this, it would have issued recommendations concerning priority
problems among Federal programs and courses for changes or corrective action.
l02d Congress Bill for a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance
In 1991, Senator Dennis DeConcini introduced S. 1649 to establish an
Office of Constituent Assistance within Congress. It would assist Members and
committees of Congress in responding to concerns and grievances of their
constituents regarding agency actions. The Office would also provide a
statistical framework by which legislators and agency officials could identify
issues that pose problems for constituents on a continuing and broad basis; help
in formulating remedial action, where appropriate; and alert Members and
committees of Congress, along with agency officials, to possible patterns of abuse
or inefficiency. In order to accomplish this, the new Office would conduct an
investigation in each case and report its findings to the congressional requester
(within six months). The Office would also issue an annual report containing
several interrelated items: an index of the issues and number of requests for
assistance for each one, a description of the issues that were investigated, and
a list of issues that may indicate patterns of inefficiency or abuse.
The basic rationales for a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance
are connected to the benefits it might provide to (1) constituents, (2) individual
Members of Congress, and (3) Congress as an institution.
Ideally, increased and improved service to constituents could arise from an
office which consolidate's constituent assistance duties, focuses entirely on this
responsibility, coordinates related inquiries from different Member offices, and
is operated by staff specially trained and experienced in this work. The
operation of such an office contrasts with exclusive reliance on individual
Member offices, whose casework efforts lack central coordination in the chamber
and where staff may be in short supply, inexperienced or untrained in
responding to these demands, or facing other duties, assignments, and
A central, professional Constituent Assistance Office is arguably more
important now than in the past for several reasons. The number of constituents
has increased, while the number of legislators has remained constant, resulting
in the possibility of Member offices being overextended by casework and other
constituent services. Constituent needs and demands have also changed over
time, placing added burdens on individual Member offices in providing services.
Federal programs and Government services, moreover, have grown in size, scope,
and complexity, affecting a greater number of citizens and in different ways than
in the past.
Finally, the type of Federal administrative entities have become increasingly
varied, ranging from Cabinet Departments to government-sponsored enterprises
and from independent regulatory commissions to Government corporations and
private firms (under contract to perform Government services). These diverse
establishments and entities differ in their responsiveness to constituent
complaints and inquiries; some agencies, for instance, have internal ombudsmen,
while most do not. These features of the contemporary Government can
intimidate or confuse citizens, contributing to their need and demands for
assistance from Congress.
Members of Congress
A number of benefits for Representatives and Senators could derive from
the creation of a Constituent Assistance Office. An immediate one is likely to
be a reduction in a Member's office workload, since constituency service,
especially casework, comprises an apparently large and increasing portion of
that workload. 6 This transfer, in turn, would free the Member's staff to
concentrate on other assignments and responsibilities or to focus on a smaller
number of constituent complaints and inquiries, thereby improving service on
selected ones. Under this system, the Member's office would be responsible for
pursuing all inquiries, even if through the Constituent Assistance Office, and
would likely be credited by constituents for the effort and for a satisfactory
resolution to the complaint.
Yet not all grievances or complaints have merit or can be resolved to the
constituent's satisfaction. Under current circumstances, in which a Member and
6 There are no comprehensive, current statistics on casework versus other
congressional office duties. But several studies and indirect indicators recognize
its growth-both in absolute terms and as a percentage of
activities-particularly over the past two decades. For instance, the percentage
of Member office staff based in the district or state, where much of the casework
and other constituent services are performed, has increased measurably during
this time: House staff based in the district has expanded from 22.5 percent in
1972 to 41.5 percent in 1990, and Senate staff based in State offices has gone
from 12.5 percent to 35.0 percent over the same period. Norman J. Ornstein,
Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin. Vital Statistics on Congress, 19911992. Washington, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992. p. 128-129. See also
Johannes, To Serve the People, p. 212-229, and "Casework in the House;" and
Richard H. Shapiro. Frontline Management: A Guide for Congressional
District/State Offices. Washington, Congressional Management Foundation,
1989. p. 93-106.
his or her own staff conduct the inquiry, the legislator might be held responsible
by the constituent for an undesirable or undesired outcome. If a Constituent
Assistance Office handled the request, by comparison, the legislator presumably
would less likely be blamed for disappointing findings and conclusions.
Another benefit-might be to reduce or eliminate the appearance of a conflict
of interest that could occur when a Member or personal staff intervene directly
on behalf of a constituent before an administrative agency or official. By
contrast, such an appearance would be unlikely to arise if a legislator calls upon
a Constituent Assistance Office (outside the legislator's immediate control) to
look into a constituent inquiry or complaint about an agency action.
Congress as an Institution
Benefits for Congress as a whole could result from increased information
about administrative actions and from an improved oversight capability
regarding suspected abuse of authority, maladministration, incompetence, and
inefficiency in administrative agencies. Presently, information which comes
from constituent complaints or inquiries is dispersed among individual Member
offices. There is no central repository for casework information and no
institution-wide followup capability to assess the reliability or validity of the
complaints or to compare them to similar charges coming from different
congressional offices. Under these circumstances, it is difficult, ifnot impossible,
to discern and follow up on patterns of administrative actions.
An Office of Constituent Assistance could provide a centralized capacity for
evaluating and comparing constituent complaints. It could also pass relevant
information to the committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over the
agency, program, or operation in question. This additional oversight capability
not only could help in checking abuses or arbitrary administrative actions but
also could contribute to legislative and agency initiatives to correct underlying
Another advantage to Congress might arise from improved coordination in
responding to the same request from a constituent. Presently, a constituent
may make a request to three congressional offices: i.e., the two Senators from
his or her State plus the Representative from the district. If the congressional
offices are not aware of such multiple referrals, duplication of effort would
result because each would respond independently. (The agency might also
duplicate· effort by responding to each of the multiple referrals from the
different congressional offices.) By comparison, a Constituent Assistance Office,
because it would consolidate casework, would more likely be alert to such
identical requests and, thus, preclude wasting scarce resources.
Objections to a Congressional Office· of Constituent Assistance might arise
for several reasons. (Indeed, none of the past proposals has been approved, even
as a pilot program.)
Representation and Constituent Service
A principal objection might be the Office's anticipated impact on
representation of constituent interests and on control over constituent service
by individual Member offices. If a separate Constituent Assistance Office were
established, these duties and, in effect, a part of the representation function
would be transferred to an organization outside the immediate control of
individual legislators. Despite the increasing demands of constituent service and
casework, Members of Congress might be reluctant to give up these assignments
and their perceived benefits.
In this event, a Constituent Assistance Office would be underutilized. At
the same time, its establishment could lead to a duplication of effort, if some
Member offices retained casework (or a substantial portion of it) while others
transferred all or most of it to the Constituent Assistance Office.
Also, Members who questioned a finding from the Constituent Assistance
Office might be compelled to embark on their own inquiry. This necessity could
result either in a duplication of effort again or in the Member's office having to
conduct such an inquiry without adequate resources (if these had been
transferred to the Constituent Assistance Office or the Member's office
otherwise lacked experienced caseworkers).
Besides these concerns, the question of which congressional units would be
permitted to make requests to such an Office could present Congress with a
Hobson's choice. On the one hand, a Constituent Assistance Office might be
overwhelmed with work if congressional committees and subcommittees, along
with individual Member offices, were permitted to make requests. On the other
hand, if only Member offices were allowed to submit requests, then broader
concerns-from subcommittees, for instance, receiving a wide range of
complaints about alleged agency abuses or inefficiencies in serving the
public-might not be heard. This restriction, in turn, would limit the
effectiveness of the new Office.
Conclusions and Recommendations from the Office
Difficulties might also arise over the conclusions and recommendations
issued by a Constituent Assistance Office, depending upon the
comprehensiveness of its casework-and resulting reliability of its data base-as
well as the scope and type of its conclusions and recommendations. The
Constituent Assistance Office would not have custody for all casework or,
possibly, even a majority of it, if Members refrained from transferring many of
these assignments to ·the new Office. In this event, the Office might lack a
reliable base of data and information on which to develop broad conclusions and
Furthermore, if the Office were not permitted to make recommendations
for broad corrective action, based on its findings and conclusions, then its
effectiveness and ability to contribute to agency-wide or substantial
improvements would be circumscribed.
Yet such conclusions and
recommendations for corrective action might themselves prove controversial. If
so, the Constituent Assistance Office could become embroiled in conflicts with
the agency in question and, possibly, with congressional panels which have
jurisdiction for the program involved (and have authorized or appropriated
funds for it over the years).
Costs and Payment
Concerns might also surround the uncertainty of what an Office of
Constituent Assistance would cost and where its resources and funding would
likely come from. Assuming, for instance, that the new Constituent Assistance
Office would be taking over duties and work previously handled by Member
offices, then its resources and personnel might be transferred from existing
Member office accounts and staff. This approach would necessarily result in a
reduction of funding and employees for each Member office. The other
alternative for paying for a Congressional Office of Constituent Assistance also
has drawbacks for legislators: If the staff and resources were not transferred
from Member offices, then Legislative Branch operating expenses would
probably have to be increased to cover the added costs of the Office.