HOUSTON - Unemployment is up. The economy is down. What are you doing to balance your family's budget? Many of us are forgoing new cars, canceling vacations and cutting coupons. But what you can't trim are your taxes. It's why KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Amy Davis is taking a closer look at how Houston-area members of Congress are spending your tax dollars.
WATCH IT: FIND IT: Statement Of Disbursements
We asked all eight Houston-area Congressional members whose expenses we compared to talk with us on camera.
They all answered our questions in writing, but only the three lowest spenders agreed to an on-camera interview.
On the floor of the house, members of Congress are debating health care. But, back at their district offices, the debate is about the cost of paper and printer ink.
"We try to spend the money wisely," said Congressman Ted Poe. "It is the taxpayer's money."
Every member of Congress gets an allowance. They can use the money for travel, paying staff, even to pay rent and utilities at their district offices.
The yearly allowance is use it or lose it. Any money your representative doesn't spend goes toward paying down the national debt.
"I'm really kind of proud that we turn money back every year," said Congressman Gene Green.
Each Congress member gets about the same allowance based on the size of their district and the distance to D.C.
John Culberson gets the most at $1.4 million. Ted Poe gets the least -- $1.3 million.
To be fair, we did the math to find out who spent the biggest percentage of their budget.
It seems saving money has little to do with being red or blue.
Republican Michael McCaul spent 97 percent of his budget in 2007 and 2008.
Republican Kevin Brady saved the most, spending just 77 percent in 2007 and only 80 percent of his allowance in 2008.
What does that mean to you?
In 2008, McCaul sent $45,445.53 back to taxpayers, compared to Brady's $272,700.64.
"It's just a conscious decision, you know. These are not our dollars," said Congressman Kevin Brady. "These are tax dollars."
Here is where everyone else fell in 2008.
Representative John Culberson comes in under McCaul, spending 94 percent of his allowance. He's followed very closely by Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, also at 94 percent, just a fraction of a percent behind him.
Ron Paul spent 92 percent. Al Green spent 89 percent. Ted Poe spent 83 percent; and Gene Green spent 82 percent.
None of our Representatives went over budget and there's a reason for that.
If a member spends more than they were allotted, they have to pay the difference out of their own pocket.
"It makes you wonder if such a rule were in place for the federal budget of some kind or another, would that give them an incentive to stop adding to the federal deficit?" asked Pete Sepp, the vice president for the National Taxpayer's Union.
Sepp studies the fine print in the records, just like we did. They are huge volumes of expenses released four times each year called the "Statement of Disbursements." While they're public record, they're not so easy to get or read.
"Thousands of pages, yet despite all of that ink, we still don't have a good idea of exactly where the money's going," said Sepp.
We had to ask the elected officials for clarification on some of the line items.
Congressman Ron Paul's office paid "John's Original Photography" $974 for Paul's new portrait, the sitting fee and pictures for his district offices.
When we asked Al Green's office about spending $1,400 on a Nikon camera, his staff told us they use the camera for pictures in the Congressman's newsletters, and since they don't hire a professional photographer, they said "a one-time expense for a high-quality camera saves money."
Sheila Jackson Lee paid a company nearly $10,979.70 in a three-month time period to take still pictures at various town hall meetings and hearings. Her staff told us, "This documentation provides resource material for our legislative work in Washington D.C. based on what we hear directly from our constituents."
When it comes to getting around town, you're leasing 2007 GMC Yukons for both Kevin Brady and Al Green. Gene Green tools around town in an 2007 Chevy Impala. Culberson uses your tax dollars to pay for a Chrysler Pacifica, while Jackson Lee drives and her staff drive a Mercury Mariner Hybrid.
None of the other representatives have vehicles paid for with tax dollars.
"My wife would probably say I'm cheap and maybe the staff would, too," said Green.
Maybe not. Each member decides how many employees they need and how much to pay them.
Ron Paul is the most generous employer, paying an average salary of $56,394 a year.
Culberson is the only area representative with two employees on his staff pulling in well over $100,000 ($155,704.26 and $114,426.49).
On top of the allowance, Congressional members are paid $174,000 a year. Their annual cost-of-living raise is automatic unless they vote not to accept it, which they did for 2010.
"If my Social Security recipients in our district are not getting cost of living, then I shouldn't either," Green told Davis.
Brady agreed saying, "I think Congress should be absolutely the last one given a cost of living increase."
The biggest spender, Congressman McCaul told us that his district is much more spread out. It covers not only West Houston and Kingwood, but also all the way down Highway 290 to Austin and Round Rock, where he says rent for his district office there is more expensive than rent in most parts of Houston.
If you're wondering why Congressman Pete Olson wasn't included in our story, he wasn't elected until the end of 2008, making it impossible to compare his spending with the other legislators.
The "Statement of Disbursements" we reviewed to find the information about how congressional members spent your tax dollars are now available online.
The third quarter of 2009 was the first period posted online.
Below are the statements we received from each member of Congress in our story.
"My office utilizes as much of our limited budget as possible to serve all of the constituents of the 10th District, as it is intended. I believe my constituents receive more direct representation through the Member Representational Account (MRA) than they would by sending more of their money back to Speaker Pelosi and the Treasury. The 10th District has the largest population in the state and second largest in the nation. We staff four offices between Houston and Austin to serve more than one million people, up from 651,000 in 2003. I fly back to the district every weekend for constituent events, and traveling within the district is also more expensive because of the size. I have also made it a practice to hire and retain experienced and competent staff, and I believe my district has been better served with continuity and little turnover as a result."
"I do my best to be a watchdog and good steward of our tax dollars, which is why I have never exceeded the budget set for me by the U.S. House of Representatives and have returned over $1.3 million of our tax dollars to the U.S. Treasury for deficit and debt reduction."
Congressman Culberson also pays his staff the second highest wage of all eight Houston-area representatives we compared. The average salary for employees in Culberson's office is $56,128.34. He is the only representative of the eight who has two staffers on the payroll making more than $100,000 a year. A third of the Congressman's staff has been working for him for over nine years -- a retention rate that is higher than any other member of the delegation. Like most employers, salary is determined by merit, experience and years of service.
Sheila Jackson Lee
"Absolutely, these disbursements are used for the constituents. The office has never overspent its budget and all resources are for the betterment of the constituents -- being able to address their needs, provide information and access, etc. We try to utilize every cent for the best representation of the constituency. We understand that we are not alone in trying to effectively manage a budget to provide as much as we can for the district.
"The office spends approximately 10 percent of the budget to give the constituents local access to me and the staff. The office has five district offices -- the cost is approx $134k just to have them open -- rent, utilities and phones. That doesn't include staff salaries, office supplies, equipment and furniture. Other members in the Houston area average three district offices. In addition, only one other member has an office in a GSA building. The rent in the GSA building is non-negotiable and is set by the federal government and is not free and is usually high. This building is in the 18th Congressional District and has been the location of the 18th District office for decades when the seat was held by previous congress persons.
"Sixty percent of the budget is spent on staffs who work on serving the constituency and on the legislative process to serve the diverse constituency for the good of the 18th Congressional District.
"Twelve percent is spent on travel -- mine back and forth from Houston to DC so when the legislative business is over, I can get back to the district with the people I represent, as well as staff who are traveling throughout the district assisting constituents, and those traveling from DC to further the legislative agenda.
"Four percent of the budget is spent on DC communications.
"Seven percent is spent on supplies necessary to maintain optimum office operations as well as reference materials essential for staff to succeed in their jobs.
"Seven percent is spent in communication outreach -- printing and mail, outreach for meetings, forums, hearings, and notices to constituents. The office is finding better and more cost-efficient ways to reach the constituency, like town hall events, informational meetings, and job fairs which benefit the constituents. The office also frequently mails information to constituents."
"Ten of Congressman Paul's staff have been with him for five or more years. Of those 10, half of them have worked for the Congressman for 10 or more years. Higher turnover offices can start new employees out at lower pay, which likely accounts for their lower average salaries. The congressman's district staff have an outstanding reputation for diligent casework. The length of service and the outstanding performance of his staff in Texas and DC lends itself to a higher pay scale."
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2011 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.