U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), and some of her House Democratic colleagues, walk to the Senate Chamber to watch as as two votes were held to end the partial government shutdown on Jan. 24, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times) SARAH SILBIGER/NYT
Photo: SARAH SILBIGER/NYT
Photo: SARAH SILBIGER/NYT

GOP groups hit McBath for slow constituent service

McBath’s office says it’s up-and-running

InsiderAdvantage posted a form letter the Marietta Democrat’s office sent a constituent last week, directing him to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office for urgent inquiries while the Sixth District office contended with a “high volume of correspondence.”

“We thank you for your patience as we develop our mail system to send substantive responses,” stated the Jan. 23 letter, sent nearly three months after McBath defeated incumbent Republican Karen Handel

Republican political groups quickly pounced on the report as a sign of freshman incompetence, since the Democrat had nearly two months between her election win and her Jan. 3 swearing-in date to staff up.

“McBath should stop kissing up to radical Democrat leaders and actually do her job,” said Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

McBath spokesman Jake Orvis said the office is accepting constituent casework.

“Anyone who contacted our office during the first 25 days of the transition period received a letter that said if their matter was urgent they should contact Senator Isakson’s office, as they are his constituents as well,” Orvis said. “Our casework operation is now up and running.” 

Constituent service is one of the core duties of congressional offices, and nearly all of the work is nonpartisan. Aides help constituents navigate the crannies of Washington’s bureaucracy, from securing Social Security benefits to work visas. Some cases can stretch for weeks or months, but others require quick action, such as aiding constituents trapped overseas. 

Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advises members of Congress on setting up their offices, said it typically takes new lawmakers more than a month to get their Washington and district offices fully operational. That’s because new members can’t access their office allowances until the day of their swearing in, nor can they work in any official capacity, which can make hiring staffers and signing leases complicated.

“We actually advise offices … don't make promises you can't keep,” said Fitch, who emphasized he was speaking broadly and not about specific lawmakers or clients. “Don't take on casework for your constituents if you don’t have the apparatus set up or the experienced staff to interact with federal agencies.” 

“They’re actually doing the right thing by sending (constituents to) Senate offices,” he said. 

Some more senior lawmakers polled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they pushed to have the constituent service side of their offices up-and-running soon after arriving in Washington. But that transition is often easier in districts where the incoming lawmaker is of the same party as the outgoing member, since they will sometimes transfer office space or retain staffers. 

(For her part, Handel previously discussed how she was greeted by little beyond a pair of mice when she arrived in her D.C. office shortly after her June 2017 special election. Interns from other Georgia congressional offices helped her answer phones during her early days in office, since she arrived mid-session and didn’t have freshman orientation.)

Outgoing lawmakers have “total control” over the constituent casework that’s transferred to their successor, said Fitch. 

“They can make it really easy for the incoming lawmaker and staff, or they can make it really hard,” he said. 

Handel narrowly lost to McBath after a hard-fought and often testy general election race that attracted only a fraction of the attention as her special election fight a year earlier. 

In the four weeks since she was sworn in, McBath has not announced her senior staffers, and her official website has remained fairly sparse. She’s instead focused on more legislative quests, including signing onto several gun control bills and Democrats’ voting rights and ethics overhaul

The constituent services issue is just the latest criticism GOP groups have leveled at McBath as they look ahead to the 2020 elections. Opposition research group’s have zeroed in on the freshman’s support for Nancy Pelosi, Democrat-authored spending bills and universal background check legislation. 

McBath has already attracted one Republican opponent for 2020: state Sen. Brandon Beach, and Handel is also said to be eyeing a comeback

Insiders’ note: This post was ripped and expanded from today’s Morning Jolt

Read more about McBath: 

McBath aims to deliver on core campaign pledge with first bill

Congress opens with pomp and a looming shutdown fight

Lucy McBath gets ready for her new role in Congress

Georgia’s newest Democrat backs Nancy Pelosi for speaker

A lot came together to help McBath score big win for Georgia Democrats

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