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New Congressmen Prepare For Obscure Side Of The Job

Tasnim Shamma

Election season is a time of talking points, where politicians boast of their influence and often take simplistic stances on complex issues so they can be easily digested by the media and voters.

Less talked about is the unglamorous, but equally important part of the job that goes with being a Member of Congress: casework. A Member of Congress's district office helps constituents with problems with federal agencies, such as processing visas and passports or filling out Medicare paperwork.

The Charlotte area has two new Members of Congress who face a steep learning curve in setting up their casework operations.

WFAE’s Ben Bradford caught up with both members, and joined Morning Edition Host Duncan McFadyen for some insight on this transition.

MCFADYEN: Casework is fully half the job of a congressional office, but many people don’t even know it exists. Can you give us some examples of casework?

BRADFORD: If a veteran is filing for his benefits and his paperwork has gotten backlogged, he can call his congressman.  If someone’s having trouble getting a passport or a visa and needs it quickly, so they can travel, that’s a really common issue that these offices deal with. They help with Medicare, Medicaid, mortgages, the IRS—if it’s a government agency, it’s their job to help guide people through.

MCFADYEN: This is not a high-profile aspect of the job—how important is it for a member?

BRADFORD: I talked to Richard Hudson, who beat Larry Kissell for the Concord seat.  Here’s how he described it:

HUDSON: One of the most important responsibilities for a member of congress is constituent service and casework. And the things I do in Washington are extra. It’s the add-on.

BRADFORD: And here’s what Congressman-elect Robert Pittenger said:

PITTENGER: There’s so many issues related to the new Obamacare Act or Social Security or veterans issues or whatever it is, that need the attention. Government is complex, and it’s frustrating to a lot of people, and they need to know we’re going to be there for them. 

BRADFORD: Think about it this way—for a lot of people it’s the only personal interaction with an elected official they’ll ever have. It’s the most tangible, one-on-one public service aspect of their job.

MCFADYEN: When they get to Washington, Hudson and Pittenger will be considered “freshman.” And freshman are expected to take time to learn—they’re not placed on the most powerful committees, and they’re not in leadership positions. But, there’s no time for a learning curve for casework.

BRADFORD: Right. Unsurprisingly, both Hudson and Pittenger are very upbeat about being ready to go on day one. But, it’s more challenging than that. The system is almost set up so people start behind the eight ball. You can’t pay staff, you can’t start working on cases, you don’t even get an office space until you’re sworn-in in January. Few offices are fully staffed when they open—it takes month to find the right people. And then, new staff without casework experience have to get trained.

That can be a real problem if you’re someone who needs help in January. If you’re a senior who depends on Social Security, and something goes wrong and it gets interrupted, you can’t wait for the new guys to get up to speed. You need help now.

MCFADYEN: So, how are our new members preparing for that?

BRADFORD: A lot of the cases are being transferred over to Senators Kay Hagan and Richard Burr—they’ll take over the highest priority ones, to take some of the load off. And then,  Hudson is a former District Director himself, so he knows how this works—so that should help.

And, then there’s a retiring Republican which makes some experienced staff available. Pittenger is replacing Congresswoman Sue Myrick. And, he’s hiring her old District Director to run his office. Hudson’s also looking at hiring Myrick’s staff, so he has some people starting who have experience.

MCFADYEN: Hudson, a Republican, is replacing Larry Kissell, a Democrat. How’s that going to work?

BRADFORD: That’s one of the most interesting thing about this aspect of the job—it’s almost totally non-partisan. There’s no uniform way of handing over power, but usually staff will write exit memos and even meet with the incoming guys that beat them in the election. Hudson went out of his way to gush about how helpful Kissell had been with the transition.

MCFADYEN: That’s a little different from the election season.

BRADFORD: Just a bit.

MCFADYEN: Thanks, Ben.