So Grimm's staff set up a makeshift office in a nearby Hilton hotel. Meeks kept his other office, in Jamaica, open 24 hours a day. Nadler took to Twitter with pictures of devastation, calls for volunteers and tips for constituents on where FEMA assistance.
Sandy and her impact may soon engage members of Congress in weighty debates about recovery funding and sea defenses; Nadler has already been on the air to discuss the potential need for retractable seawalls to protect New York against future storm surges. But for now, local members are dealing with the nitty gritty of the storm. Grimm on Sunday brought would-be marathon runners to volunteer in Crescent Beach. Meeks' office has been handling complaints about power outages and fallen trees. Nadler directed residents to sites for getting free food and water. Staff for Rep. Joe Crowley, who represents parts of the East Bronx that took damage from the storm, guided constituents through the process of getting disaster assistance. Rep. Charles Rangel's office in Harlem publicized a list of resources for businesses hurt by Sandy.
Members of Congress always operate in two theaters?the corridors of power in the nation's capital and the streets of their districts. So when assessing the effectiveness of New York City's House delegation, each member's role in substantive legislation or multi-billion-dollar budgeting is only part of the picture. Be it after a devastating hurricane or under more normal circumstances, their impact on local groups and individual constituents is a more mundane but critical part of their jobs. For his part, Crowley says helping constituents is "my number-one priority as a member of Congress."
Inquiries run the gamut
New York City's 13-member Congressional delegation operates a total of 24 district offices in the city. (Rep. Eliot Engel currently has two additional offices in Westchester and Rockland counties.) Some of those offices will close or re-locate once new district lines take hold. Now that Co-op City, in the Bronx, is shifting into Engel's territory, Crowley's office there will close down. Rep. Carolyn Maloney's Astoria office and Nadler's Coney Island satellite will move to reflect shifting boundaries.
Brice Peyre, Maloney's longtime spokesman, says her district offices receive hundreds of inquiries per week?in line with estimates from other House members in the city. Rangel's office received 52,000 phone calls last year, and while some of those were from people calling in to express an opinion on some policy topic, many were people with questions about immigration, Social Security or energy assistance. According to a Rangel spokeswoman, "Constituent service is our top priority and every single member of the staff deal with constituent issues."
Sometimes the inquiries can be addressed by answering a simple question; on other occasions the issue is more complex. Peyre recalls one constituent issue that took 10 years to resolve. Rob Gottheim, the district director for Nadler, says his office was contacted last year by a Chinese family having visa trouble: One brother was dying and in desperate need of a stem-cell transplant from his twin, who was being blocked from traveling to the United States; a call from Nadler to the consulate cleared the way. The brother passed away in spite of the transplant.
Usually, the stakes are lower. Crowley says he gets calls about "recommending one of my young constituents for entry into our nation's top academies." Nadler is often contacted on matters than have nothing to do with federal policy per se, like problems with a MetroCard, but Gottheim says the staff tries to help anyway. Peyre says Maloney's office is seeing more inquiries these days from same-sex couples with immigration problems.
"Sometimes they feel like they're in a Catch-22," says Gottheim of the callers. "They can never speak to somebody, and the beauty of an elected official is we can talk to a real, live person and get that information and pass it along."
Members of Congress work through special liaison offices at federal agencies and get straight answers that aren't available to the public. That's true even if a Democratic member of Congress is trying to get help from a Republican administration, or vice versa, according to Engel spokesman Joe O'Brien. "The level we work at is governed by the law," not politics, he added.
As O'Brien spoke on a recent morning, a staffer across the office hung up his phone and turned to the elderly man seated near his desk. "I just talked to him and he says hold off. Hold off because you're already getting the maximum benefit," the staffer said. "Do you understand? You're not going to get any more money."
Engel's office on Johnson Avenue, with its green awning bearing Engel's name, is among the more visible Congressional offices in the city. Rep. Jose Serrano's lone district office is tucked into a back hallway of the top floor of the historic Bank Note Building in Mott Haven; passersby would never know there was a Congressional presence in the structure.
In front of the building that houses Rep. Yvette Clarke's Linden Boulevard office, there's a huge sign for Councilman Mathieu Eugene, who also has space inside, but none for the congresswoman. On a sunny October weekday, an elderly woman came to Clarke with a housing problem. "You're hurting my heart. My heart's hurting," a receptionist told the woman, who had been evicted. It soon became clear this wasn't the first time they'd spoken. A few months ago, the staffer gently reminded the woman, "I told you I'd found a place for you, but you didn't want it."
Members of Congress have to decide how to spend the funding they get each year for staff and offices, and that means compromises. Nadler's office on Varick Street is inside a large federal building with no street visibility?not ideal, says Gottheim, but what they can afford.
"We need to be in Manhattan. We need to have the space to work in Manhattan. Manhattan has very expensive office rates," Gottheim explains, adding that Nadler will probably shift his Coney Island office to Bensonhurst, and ably most likely to a store-front operation, if he wins the fall election. (Every city House member who's seeking a return to Washington faces opposition on Nov. 6. Click here to see the options for voters.)