Last April, I received a copy of a beautiful, 11x17 glossy, four color, full bleed mass mailing from my Congressman Harry Mitchell. The piece was designed, printed and mailed at taxpayer expense. On April 11th, I made this observation.
Congressmen are allowed to use the US Postal service to send mail to their districts for free. This "franking" privilege is an important right, but it is subject to abuse. Over the years constituent communications have begun to look more and more like campaign brochures and less and less like constituent communications.
I recently received this email from Congressman Jeff Flake.
It was your blog post that spurred introduction of this legislation. Keep it up!
The email included a link to this article.
WASHINGTON - Laws dating to the earliest days of Congress let lawmakers send out official mail to constituents for free. That privilege, known as franking, is supposed to help lawmakers answer questions from voters and keep the people they represent up to date on business in Washington.
But much of the franked mail that goes out in a typical year - an average of nearly $22 million from the House and $3.2 million from the Senate - looks like the campaign mailings that pile up in election years.
A bill introduced this week by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., would let voters see how much their lawmakers spend on mass mailings.
Flake, long a critic of wasteful government spending, spent far less - $1,406 - on mass mailings in 2005 than most of his Arizona colleagues, who spent tens of thousands of dollars or more on franked mail. Two Arizona congressmen, Republican John Shadegg and Democrat Raul Grijalva, did not send any franked mail in 2005.
Mailings within 90 days of an election are prohibited, but that leaves the rest of the year to send out tailored messages.
A Congressional Research Service report found that mass mailings peak just before the deadline, as members rush to squeeze in more publicity.
"By the very fact of placing a story in your junk-mail newsletter that you're doing so many good things for your district, that's already building positive regard," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Alexandria, Va., that advocates for lower taxes and objects to franked mail's cost. "It subverts the principle that challengers and incumbents ought to be on a reasonably equal footing under the law. They're not."
Flake admits his bill might not get very far in a Congress where Democrats and Republicans alike indulge in franking.
Party leaders sometimes privately encourage members to send out mailings. But he hopes better disclosure about the costs might shame some lawmakers into restraining their postage costs.
"It's very difficult to get any campaign reform that benefits challengers, but this is something that I think when the public knows how bad it is, they'll demand a change," he said.
Lawmakers in both parties take advantage of the free postage.
The National Taxpayers Union produces an annual study of House office expenses, focusing closely on franked mail. The most recent study found House members spent almost half as much on taxpayer-funded direct mail to voters in the 2003-04 election cycle as challengers spent on their entire campaigns in those years.
The average House member spent more than $50,000 on mail in 2006. The average Senate office spent about $34,000, according to the Congressional Research Service study.
The National Taxpayers Union's 2005 study found Flake spent only $4,782 on mail that year -the vast majority on letters, not mass mailings - and ranked him the 7th most frugal House member for office expenses.
Flake says he sends out mass mailings only to announce things like deadlines to apply for U.S. military academies.
Of Arizona lawmakers, only Rep. Rick Renzi, a Republican, ranked in the top 20 for mass mailed franking. He spent $124,270 in 2005, according to the group.
Even if it became law, Flake's bill might not make a dent in the flood of mail coming from Capitol Hill.
Consultants who work on franked mail say their clients get hardly any criticism from voters who receive mailings.
But Flake is pushing forward nonetheless.
"Every decade or so, it just becomes so blatant or so bad that the pendulum swings back the other way, and I think we're there - or we're almost there," he said.