Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert was recently spotted at a Staten Island GOP fundraiser palling around with a couple of the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol on January 6. She was joined at the New York City fete by fellow Trump throne-sniffer Lee Zeldin, the Long Island congressman who, like Boebert and Staten Island Representative Nicole Malliotakis, were among the cohort of coup supporters who did not vote to certify the 2020 election results—and are now fundraising off a presumptive “Trump’s Majority” in advance of next year’s midterms.
There’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to the first-term congresswoman and how she might deploy her power in a GOP House majority. Her gun nuttery is bad enough, to say nothing of the “Today is 1776” tweeting on 1/6 and her signaling Nancy Pelosi’s movements during the worst of that day. Boebert has also sponsored a rash of bills in her short time in the Congress, and while many fall into the category of hostile-messaging bills—Biden Must Resign! Don’t Pack the Court!—one bill is just a total hot mess.
House Resolution 273 may seem an innocuous tidbit of legislation pegged at “reforming” one of the key grassroots functions of any congressional office: casework initiated on behalf of constituents who reach out with some problem they’re having with a federal agency or another entity. The text is short and simple, but the implications are enormous: “Any material obtained or generated by the office of a Member in response to a casework request from a constituent is to be treated as material in the possession of the House for purposes of enabling the successor to that Member to obtain access to the material.”
I was a congressional caseworker for a few months shy of two years, from late 2019 through the spring of this year, and found that one of the great joys of the job is that the work is totally and blessedly nonpolitical. A caseworker’s job is to help the constituent, regardless of their politics or whom they voted or didn’t vote for. For the uninitiated, here’s how the process works: When a constituent reaches out to their representative for an assist, a caseworker will first send them an advocacy-authorization form, which allows the member’s office to work on their behalf in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974. They provide a signature, their Social Security number, and a description of the problem. The member’s office goes to great lengths to assure the constituent that their personal information will be closely protected.
The constituent also sends along relevant documents: tax returns, medical records, bank statements. Authorization in hand, the caseworker will reach out to the congressional liaison at whatever federal agency or nongovernmental entity is involved. It could be the IRS, it could be FEMA, it could be the VA, or it could be, say, the congressional liaison at Pacific Gas & Electric. The caseworker’s job is to ensure that the constituent’s issue is being fully and fairly addressed in accordance with the agency’s own guidelines.
A lot of the job involves managing expectations. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do except provide an empathetic ear. The work can be immensely rewarding—and terribly heartbreaking. You’re dealing with many people who’d just as soon not contact their representative but have hit a dead end. A congressional “big-footing” tends to expedite the process, but it doesn’t guarantee a favorable outcome. The job is a hybrid of customer service, social work, and process refereeing, but the spike in Covid-related cases in 2020 really put the emphasis on the social work aspect of casework, given all the despair and economic dislocation that came with the pandemic. Cases are often driven by events: When disaster strikes, you’re working with the FEMA liaison. The passage of the CARES Act prompted a big spike in cases from small businesses who wanted to access Small Business Administration loans and grants, and faced various challenges in getting their fair share of the SBA offerings.
There were moments during the grueling Covid-and-wildfires summer of 2020, where a little grace and good humor came in very handy. I was on the phone one day with a pastor-for-hire who contacted our office to inquire about whether he’d qualify for unemployment benefits that, for the first time, were available to independent contractors and gig economy workers. I said I didn’t see why he wouldn’t qualify, but couldn’t resist: “Well, technically speaking, you do have a boss,” I noted, and paused for effect. “I believe you work for God.” We shared a laugh, and when I checked back with him a few months later, his prayers had indeed been answered.
The first impeachment of Trump provided a handy counterpoint to the ethics by which caseworkers are bound to abide: Casework isn’t a Ukrainian shakedown racket. A caseworker who says to a constituent, “I’m happy to engage with Social Security about your disability claim, but I need you to do me a favor” may soon be looking for a new job. A grateful constituent might reach out after a successful outcome to say they’d made a thank-you contribution to the member’s campaign. I’d tell them we would’ve helped them even if they voted for Trump.
Point being: There are no transactional politics in congressional casework, and Boebert’s bill, if enacted, would open the door to a sinister new era when American citizens could see their Privacy Act and HIPAA protections violated in a hostile and highly politicized environment where “punching down” to voters themselves has been normalized by Trump. As things stand, constituents don’t actually engage with the House of Representatives and share their personal information with the House. They engage and share with the member—and it’s often only because they trust or politically support their congressperson that they reach out at all. If enacted, HR 273 would inhibit anyone who might otherwise engage with their representative if they knew their personal information would become the “possession” of the House upon the member’s departure, and subject to who knows what sort of scrutiny, and by whom, and to what end. Boebert’s bill leaves it to the House Administration committee to sort it out.
The bill’s origins also speak to our impetuous and hyper-reactionary times. When Boebert beat Republican incumbent Scott Tipton in the 2020 primary and then fended off her Democratic challengers, Tipton’s office did what any departing member would do under established norms as spelled out by the Congressional Research Service. His staff worked to close as many open cases as possible before leaving office, and then handed off the rest to one of the state’s senators, with the blessing of the constituents. The departing member can also share their case-management system with the incoming member, which didn’t happen here since, as the Colorado media reported, Tipton left office with only a handful of open cases.
Boebert flipped out anyway, deciding that she and she alone could fix this problem. She went on the radio and declared that her bill was all about helping veterans who were betrayed by Tipton. Yet, if enacted, HR 273 would betray those very constituents by turning over their personal information to the House of Representatives, without their consent. The Colorado press did a great job in bringing this story to ground, concluding that Boebert’s bill offers a solution to a nonexistent problem while creating a very real problem when it comes to American citizens’ privacy rights—similar to the Pennsylvania GOP scheme to collect personal data on voters to counteract the boogeyman of voter fraud. The bill is currently parked in the Rules Committee, awaiting its fate.
The implications of HR 273 are even more sinister when you consider the Covid era as a test case for what could happen if Trump and his House majority succeeded in deconstructing the administrative state. As the cases piled up last year and federal agencies shut their offices and sent everyone home because of Covid, caseworkers in red and blue districts alike faced big delays in resolving cases—and many frustrated, desperate constituents as a result. I remain in awe of the extraordinary good-faith effort the liaisons brought to bear during extremely difficult days. But that’s not how the bad-faith residents of Trumpworld see things. “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer,” writes William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch, and Steve Bannon couldn’t have said it better himself. The cancer was called out last week by coup-opposing Ohio Republican member Anthony Gonzalez, who isn’t running again in 2022, he says, because of the vicious primary-season push to elect Trump’s Majority. They’re already geared up for battle with a new line of shirts and hats boasting that very same slogan.
The good news is that Boebert has a few impressive challengers in the running, including Colorado State Senator Kerry Donovan. Over the summer, Donovan and State Representative Donald Valdez both posted Facebook campaign ads where Boebert’s head was bigger than their own. Much bigger. That trend seems to have ended, but the big-head ads were understandable given the outsized influence Boebert has when it comes to normalizing violent right-wing extremism, and her embrace of armed spectacle over civility and substance. But there’s a devil in the details, too, and Boebert’s challengers may want to start locking horns with her over this reckless blunderbuss of a bill.