Skip to content
 

Who is a “Constituent”?: Lessons from the Menendez Case

A significant portion of a congressional office’s resources are devoted to performing “casework,” which the Congressional Research Service defines as “the response or services that Members of Congress provide to constituents who request assistance.” While this seems like a noncontroversial definition, it raises two more difficult questions: (1) who are the “constituents” for whom a Member of Congress may perform casework; and (2) when, if ever, is it appropriate for Members to perform casework for non-constituents. The House and Senate answer these questions somewhat differently. See CRS Report for Congress, Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources 3-4 n.13 (Jan. 3, 2017).

The House Ethics Manual notes that “[a]s a general matter . . .  a Member should not devote official resources to casework for individuals who live outside the district.” This admonition is based partly on the statute authorizing funding of the Members’ Representational Allowance, which provides that the MRA “’is to support the conduct of the official and representational duties of a Member of the House of Representatives with respect to the district from which the Member is elected.’” House Ethics Manual at 310 (quoting 2 U.S.C. §57b, now codified at 2 U.S.C. §5341(a)) (emphasis added by House Manual). The House Manual thus provides both a definition of “constituent” (one residing in the Member’s district) and an admonition against performing casework for non-constituents. See also Dennis F. Thompson, Ethics in Congress 91-92 (1995) (noting that the House Manual’s “sensible discussion” of casework is not explicitly endorsed in House or committee rules).

To be sure, the House guidance does not categorically prohibit providing assistance to non-constituents. The House Manual notes that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate to do so, such as where “working for non-constituents on matters that are similar to those facing constituents may enable the Member better to serve his or her district.” House Ethics Manual at 310. Members may also vary on how they interpret this guidance. For example, the website of Representative Sean Duffy states flatly that “Members of Congress are prevented from assisting constituents residing outside their Congressional District.” Others may take a more nuanced view. Members are advised, however, that there is at least a strong presumption against performing casework for non-constituents.

In contrast, the Senate’s guidance on this issue is less clear. Senate Rule 43(2) provides that senators and staff may provide certain assistance with matters pending before government agencies “at the request of a petitioner.” The Senate Ethics Manual notes that “petitioners . . . may or may not be constituents,” but it does not elaborate on this observation or explain if or when it is appropriate for senators to provide assistance to non-constituents. See Senate Ethics Manual at 178. The Senate Manual discusses Rule 43 in the course of a chapter on “Constituent Service,” and its discussion largely assumes that senators will be providing assistance to constituents. Id. at 177-86. Nonetheless, CRS suggests the Senate guidance provides greater leeway to assist “nonconstituents who might seek congressional intervention in administrative proceedings [such as] foreign-born individuals seeking to emigrate to the United States, or a family or other interested party who live outside a Member’s constituency on behalf of a resident constituent.”

During the course of Senator Robert Menendez’s bribery trial, the prosecution argued that Menendez’s assistance to Dr. Melgen, a personal friend who resided in Florida, was improper or irregular because Melgen was not a constituent of the New Jersey senator. The court directed the parties to brief the meaning of “constituent” for purposes of instructing the jury.

Prosecutors filed a brief response stating that “Senator Menendez’s constituents are the New Jerseyans that he was elected to represent in the United States Senate.” Menendez’s lawyers, however, argued that there was not a single definition of “constituent.” They acknowledged “Dr. Melgen was a citizen of Florida, not New Jersey, and [therefore] was not Senator Melendez’s electoral constituent.” (emphasis in original). They contended, however, that Menendez’s “constituents” were not limited to electoral constituents.

According to Menendez’s legal team, “no law, custom, or congressional precedent supports the prosecution’s suggestion that a legislator cannot advocate on behalf of someone outside the legislator’s electoral constituency.” Moreover, “as advances in technology, travel, and communication (particularly the Internet) have created greater interconnectedness throughout the citizenry, political constituencies based on ideology, cultural ties, and other criteria—as well as these constituencies’ financial support—have outstripped the geographic boundaries of any given State or District.” Thus, it is increasingly common, they suggest, for legislators to represent “political constituencies” and not merely electoral ones.

In particular, “[r]acial and ethnic constituencies have . . . long played a key role in nationalized, non-electoral constituencies.” Thus, because Senator Menendez is “one of the only Senators of Latino heritage,” he regularly “advocates for Latinos across the country on a range of issues from immigration reform to discrimination.” He also “has felt a special obligation to help Hispanic-Americans—no matter where they live.” (This obligation apparently extended to helping Dr. Melgen, a Hispanic-American, with respect to his personal and business interests, such as intervening on his behalf when a federal agency found the doctor had overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million.)

Finally, Menendez’s lawyers contended that “Senate Rules do not support the view that a Senator’s duties are confined to electoral constituencies.” Pointing to Rule 43’s broad reference to “petitioners,” they note that nothing in the rule “defines ‘constituent’ or restricts a Senator’s duties to geographic constituents.”

For purposes of the criminal trial, the defense’s ultimate point was that the meaning of “constituent” only mattered to the extent it was relevant to the senator’s state of mind, and therefore it was a question of fact for the jury to decide whether Menendez believed he was assisting a constituent (as opposed to providing favors in exchange for the personal gifts and campaign contributions he had received from Melgen). Thus, it really did not matter whether Menendez’s understanding of Senate rules on constituent service was accurate so long as it was what he believed.

However, Menendez’s conduct was subsequently considered by the Senate Ethics Committee, which issued this letter of admonition to the senator on April 26, 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the committee did not criticize Menendez’s understanding of constituent service. Instead, it stated:

[T]he Committee understands that you are committed to assisting constituents. Indeed, the Committee has long recognized that “[r]esponding to inquiries of petitioners and assisting them before executive or independent government officials and agencies” is an “appropriate exercise of the representational function of each Member of Congress, as well as an important function of congressional oversight.” Your assistance to Dr. Melgen, however, went well beyond Senate norms. You took action, over the course of several years, on behalf of one specific individual who repeatedly gave you many valuable gifts and who was also among your closest friends, which included direct contact with officials at the highest levels of government.

Letter of Admonition at 3 (citation omitted). This passage does not make any reference to the fact that Melgen did not reside in New Jersey. Arguably, therefore, it implicitly suggests that the committee accepted Senator Menendez’s theory of “political constituencies,” including the idea that a senator may appropriately choose to provide assistance to out-of-state individuals based on race or ethnicity (even with respect to issues unrelated to either).  If this is an accurate interpretation of the Senate Ethics Committee’s position, it suggests that the gulf between House and Senate “norms” on this question has grown even wider.

 

Leave a Reply