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For Lawmakers, the Individual is Political : Congress: In between dealing with issues that make headlines, members often attend to specific concerns of constituents. Striking a balance is key to reelection.

December 17, 1995|Marc Lacey | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress has absolutely no jurisdiction over potholes. It's a waste of time to complain to the likes of Henry Waxman or Carlos Moorhead about that huge asphalt crater down the road. But a congressman's job is not strictly about Bosnia or budgeting, either.

In between the headline-grabbing issues, local lawmakers frequently handle matters no broader than the person on the other end of the phone--the prisoner seeking a cell closer to home, the retiree complaining about that lost Social Security check, the business owner trying to prevent the Internal Revenue Service from shutting everything down.

Every congressional office strikes a different balance between casework and the broader public policy part of the job--but all members know it is a key to reelection.

As one congressional study put it: "Casework is not a service provided solely out of compassion. Rather, managing effective constituent services

The dilemmas dumped in the laps of local members of Congress are sometimes minor matters that can be handled by one phone call to, say, the Department of Veteran's Affairs or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then there are the headaches that can require years of aggressive advocacy.

In most cases, callers must be constituents and their problems must have some connection to Washington. Besides that, the queries span the globe.

"There is federal money involved in just about everything these days, so we get calls on just about everything," said Ginney Hatfield, a caseworker for Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) who is still busy handling problems stemming from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Local congressional offices have helped process visas for travelers stranded overseas, sent along burial information for Arlington National Cemetery and grappled with FEMA over the processing of earthquake claims.

They pass on the calls about potholes, driver's licenses and most dogs to someone else.

"Sometimes I think we may be the office the operators give out when they're not sure about something," said a staffer for Rep. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "They just say, 'Call Waxman."'

As a result of one such call, Waxman was able to keep the IRS from seizing the assets of a Santa Monica special-effects company. The small business' bank account was frozen after the IRS claimed that Image Creators Inc. did not pay taxes on its employees. The company insisted that there was a mistake since it had used only independent contractors.

"I said, 'Don't you care if our business goes under?' and the woman at the IRS said, 'No,"' said Karen Brooks, the company's financial officer, "What is a regular citizen to do?"

Waxman's office intervened, forwarding the company's tax returns to the IRS and preventing the seizure of the company's bank account.

"There's no doubt, that during Waxman's next election, I'm going to make a nice donation," Brooks said.

Marie Larson of Sylmar credits her congressman with the helping to keep her off the streets, although she has no spare funds to help his campaign.

Larson has been seeking disability payments from the Social Security Administration since 1992. Officials turned her down twice, but finally approved her application earlier this year after an administrative hearing. Still, due to a huge backlog, months have passed, her bills have mounted and no check has arrived.

"I have been waiting for three years, begging, just trying to stay alive,: she said. "It's sad that it takes an act of Congress to get something qualified for."

After contacting Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), Larson received a $400 payment to cover her rent. She expects the first benefit check to arrive any day.

"If it wasn't for them, I'd be living in my car," she said.

Most casework, involves routine letters prepared by aides urging government bureaucrats to review a particular concern.

But something lawmakers themselves get involved, according to two agency officials who handle such matters, and sometimes they use bluster--contacting top bosses and subtly threatening to make their lives difficult.

Even though Congress holds the purse strings to the entire bureaucracy, however, congressional clout has its limits. After all, the House has 435 members, each with a handful of staffers fielding constituent problems and sending off letters for the boss.

To handle the flow, many government departments have special congressional liaison offices. Letters sent in by ordinary taxpayers go in one pile. Letters sent in by ordinary taxpayers go in one pile. Letters from members of Congress go in another

"A congressman can't force anyone to do anything," said Robbie Heintzman, a caseworker for Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon (R--Santa Clarita). "All we do is ask an agency to look into something and to follow up. If someone has fallen through the cracks, we can sometimes do more than if they just call those automated phone recordings."

Despite the obvious political benefits, lawmakers must read carefully when pushing the causes of contributors.

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