Elizabeth Bewley, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Tennessee's first-term House members are living up to their promises of fiscal restraint -- at least in how they run their offices.
Republican Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin, Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Scott DesJarlais of Jasper and Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah have spent a smaller portion of their annual office budgets than their more senior colleagues, according to a Gannett Washington Bureau analysis of records from the first three quarters of the year.
DesJarlais was the most frugal, spending just 47 percent of his $1.41 million budget by Sept. 30.
That fits with the ultra-fiscally conservative image he has crafted this year by voting against deals on to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government for fiscal 2012. While most other Republicans in the delegation favored those compromises, DesJarlais said they didn't cut enough.
"We tried to run our congressional office the same way that I ran my medical practice -- we set a budget and stuck to it," DesJarlais said. "It was a top priority of mine to ensure that taxpayer dollars were spent in an efficient way, while also making sure that my office had the appropriate resources to serve 4th District constituents."
Some leftover money will be used to buy equipment, such as software and video cameras, that the congressman avoided purchasing earlier to make sure he didn't go over budget, said DesJarlais' spokesman, Robert Jameson. The rest will go back to the Treasury.
Fincher came in second among the delegation's four freshmen, spending 55 percent of his budget by Sept. 30. Black and Fleischmann spent 60 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Black's spokeswoman, Stephanie Genco, said Black plans to return money to the Treasury this year.
"She feels it is important to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars," Genco said.
Other delegation members spent more than 63 percent of their budgets, but remain on target to return unused funds to the Treasury at year's end.
DesJarlais and Black won't play Santa and give year-end bonuses to staffers this year, although Black plans to give some merit-based raises.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, also doesn't plan to distribute bonuses but raised some salaries when he reduced his staff size, said spokeswoman Katie Hill.
Fincher and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, did not disclose whether they plan to pay bonuses or return money to the Treasury.
Cooper had spent 71 percent of his office budget by Sept. 30. He has returned more than $600,000 to the Treasury over the last nine years but expects to return little this year, due to the 5-percent cut to office budgets enacted by House Republicans in January, said Hill.
The fiscal 2012 budget deal passed by Congress last week calls for cutting office budgets another 6.4 percent, according to Ryan Nickel, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Most House members received approximately $1.4 million this year to pay for district office leases, staff salaries, mailings to constituents, office equipment, travel reimbursements and other expenses.
Budgets vary among the 435 House members, depending on the local cost of office leases, the number of addresses in a congressional district where official mail is sent, and the distance of congressional districts from Washington. Lawmakers who represent districts in California or Hawaii, for example, receive more than $1.5 million.
In Tennessee, Cooper received the highest allowance, at $1.47 million, and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, received the lowest, at $1.39 million.
Lawmakers decide for themselves how many district offices to operate, how much to pay their staffs and how many mailings to send to constituents.
Tennessee's four freshman lawmakers spent less on salaries than the rest of the delegation because they employed fewer staffers. Salaries make up the largest portion of lawmakers' budgets.
DesJarlais spent the least, doling out $431,183 to 13 employees. Cooper spent nearly twice that, paying 19 aides $855,747.
But Cooper will eliminate two full-time positions by year's end to cope with budget cuts, according to Hill. Next year's cuts could mean more layoffs or salary reductions, but Cooper is trying to avoid that, she said.
"Members prioritize their expenditures," Hill said. "Rep. Cooper chooses to spend his limited budget to attract the most qualified and experienced staff members, rather than on taxpayer-funded mailers, office rent and supplies."
Tennessee's freshmen spent more on printing and postage than most of the delegation's more senior members. Black, DesJarlais, Fincher and Fleischmann each spent more than $40,000 to print and send mailings -- with Black spending more than $101,000 -- while Blackburn, Cooper and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, each spent less than $13,000.
The exception is 23-year House veteran Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Knoxville, who spent $51,120 on mailings and $50,752 on printing.
Lawmakers often send newsletters or other mailings to increase name recognition and inform constituents of their legislative priorities - a practice many deem less necessary the longer they've been in office.