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Curb the Frank

The ingenuity of politicians never ceases to amaze us. Members of Congress are sharply restricted in using the franking privilege to send out mass mailings immediately before elections. But House committees are not — and so last October, House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) sent out a four-color mailer to 175,000 residents of four states, two of them hotly contested in the presidential race, touting his and President Bush’s efforts to keep national parks open to snowmobiles.

Pombo is an aggressive franker, but he’s only the leading edge of a House trend that needs review and reform. At the start of the 108th Congress, Pombo asked the House Administration Committee for a mail budget of $500,000 for his committee. He got $100,000, but that was still an 800 percent increase from the budget for the previous Congress. He spent $68,000 in taxpayer money on the snowmobile mailer, which was sent mainly to residents of swing states Minnesota and Wisconsin. It cited no specific legislation, but it did mention Bush five times.

At a contentious hearing of the House Administration Committee, Democrats objected to the Pombo mailing — but only, it seems, for the purpose of making sure that Democrats on various committees get a cut of expanded franking budgets. Total franking outlays for committees have risen from $38,000 in 2002 to $104,000 in 2004. Wonder of wonders, the outlays tend to decline in nonelection years: The cost for 2003 was only $22,000, as if citizens didn’t need to be informed about legislation in odd-numbered years.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) accused Democrats on his committee of playing “gotcha” when they objected to the Pombo project. He said, with some justification, that the matter should be referred to the bipartisan House Franking Commission, which at the moment can’t operate because Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hasn’t appointed her members.

We think Pelosi should allow the commission to work, though Ney is probably right when he says that, under the current rules, the panel will find nothing amiss with Pombo’s ploy. That’s because the rules permit unlimited committee mailings before elections, even as Members individually are limited to batches of 500 within 90 days of voting.

Clearly, the whole subject of committee franking needs reform. Ney has stated that he is willing to do so, as soon as the commission is up and running. The National Taxpayers Union and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) favor an annual limit of $25,000 on committee mailings. In addition to such limits — and election-year restrictions — the House needs to make the whole franking process more open to public inspection. It’s now practically impossible to find out what goes out under the frank, because requests to see material need to be specific. Franked material can be examined in the offices of the Franking Commission, but not copied. If Congress isn’t ashamed of what’s being mailed out, it sure acts like it is.

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