By Fergus Cullen – This article was originally published on Sunday, August 23, 2009, by the New Haven Register.

U.S. Rep. Christopher S. Murphy, D-5, sent more mail at taxpayer expense than any other member of Congress from New England in the past two years. U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2, is Connecticut’s least frugal member, according to a new analysis of congressional office spending done by the Yankee Institute.

How members of Congress spend their personal office budgets has long been shrouded in mystery. Disclosure reports have only been available in paperback volumes containing more than 1,000 pages of tiny print, and these tomes are only available in a small basement office at the Capitol or in select Federal Depository libraries. It’s enough to make one think Congress doesn’t want the public to see how members spend our money.

The Yankee Institute is bringing sunlight, transparency and disclosure to how Connecticut’s members of Congress spend their personal office budgets. Every line item of office spending for Connecticut’s five members of the House of Representatives for the 110th session of Congress from 2007 through 2008) — some 10,000 line items covering nearly $13 million in spending — is now published and downloadable at yankeeinstitute.org.

Courtney spent 99.3 and 99.7 percent of his office budget during his first two years in Congress, last year spending all but $4,432 of his $1.3 million budget. Former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, defeated for re-election last year, was the second-highest spending member as a result of maintaining the biggest payroll in the delegation. At 90.4 percent, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, spent the lowest percentage of her office budget.

These budgets are “use it or lose it;” that is, any money not spent at the end of the year stays in the U.S. Treasury. Members who are frugal — say, by getting by with smaller staffs or by sending less mail at taxpayer expense — directly save taxpayers money.

Members of Congress enjoy something called the franking privilege, by which they can send unlimited amounts of mail at taxpayer expense using their signature in lieu of standard postage.

Murphy sent 1.3 million pieces of mass mail using the franking privilege, more mail than any of New England’s 22 members of Congress. These glossy, full-color pieces are often indistinguishable from campaign mailings, but are sent at taxpayer expense. The mailings are banned within 90 days of an election, an acknowledgement of the political benefit of sending such mailings.

Courtney’s total of 941,355 pieces of mass mail ranked him second in Connecticut and third in New England. For comparison, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1, and Shays both sent fewer than 10,000 such pieces, and three members of Congress from Massachusetts sent none.

The reports reveal that six staffers working for Connecticut members earned more than $100,000 each last year, topped by Courtney’s chief of staff, Jason Gross, who took home $151,411 in 2008.

In addition to base pay, many staffers appear to have been given generous end-of-year bonuses. DeLauro appears to have awarded $7,000 bonuses to 13 of her staffers at the end of 2008, based on the difference in their pay between the third and fourth quarters of the year, followed by a decline in pay for the first quarter of 2009. The same pattern is evident in 2007, when most of DeLauro’s staffers received a $6,000 spike in fourth quarter pay.

Courtney and Murphy also appear to have given generous bonuses after their successful re-elections last fall. These bonuses came at exactly the time when hundreds of thousands of their Connecticut constituents were worried about keeping their own jobs and were foregoing bonuses themselves. And, because of the “use or lose it” nature of Congressional office budgets, a member’s decision to award the end-of-year bonuses meant not leaving that money in the Treasury.

Larson and DeLauro combined to spend $15,100 for calendars for their constituents. Larson spent more on bottled water, $6,346.60, than any other member of Connecticut’s delegation, and also spent $4,527 on food and beverages at the Hartford Marriott over two days in February, 2007. Murphy spent at least $84.35 on Diet Mountain Dew, a soft drink.

After stonewalling for years, Congress has finally announced plans to make office spending reports publicly available over the Internet by the end of this year, starting with spending reports covering the third quarter of 2009 — conveniently, after giving notice to members that future spending reports might get more attention than they have in the past. Congress has no plans to make the reports detailed in the Yankee Institute’s study available online.

Fergus Cullen is executive director of the Yankee Institute, P.O. Box 260660, Hartford 06126. E-mail: fergus@yankeeinstitute.org.

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