When Members write their constituents a letter, they have to be very careful what they say. The franking commission is watching, and it’s wielding a proverbial red pen.
Franking regulations have been around for decades and are designed to prevent lawmakers from abusing their access to free taxpayer-paid mail for partisan purposes, but their Byzantine rules outlined in a 72-page handbook can trip up even the most experienced legislators.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), in his eighth term, complained last week it took him four tries to get a letter to 4,000 of his constituents about the disputed August vote over benefits for illegal immigrants past the bipartisan franking commission staff. Mica’s crime? Quoting The Washington Post, The Washington Times and Rush Limbaugh and showing a screen shot of “215-213” from the Lou Dobbs show on CNN with a caption, “Chaos in Congress, Dems Action Forces GOP Walkout.”
Mica dropped the Rush Limbaugh quote, which he acknowledged was “inflammatory,” as well as the screen shot, but the quotes from the two newspapers still didn’t pass muster.
The 72-page guidebook isn’t exactly crystal clear on the subject. It says newspaper articles and the Congressional Record can be franked, “provided the content complies with franking regulations.” Among the guidelines for what doesn’t pass muster is this tidbit: “Comments critical of policy or legislation should not be partisan, politicized or personalized.” Translation: the regulations expect politicians not to be, well, political.
“I thought whenever The Washington Post and The Washington Times agree, that’s worth pointing out,” said Mica, who said he thought it was ridiculous that he could not include excerpts from the two papers. Mica was so outraged after the vote controversy that he made up “215-213” pins for his colleagues to wear on the House floor, lest anyone forget.
The Post excerpt quoted Republicans shouting “shame, shame” and charging that Democrats had stolen the vote. The Washington Times excerpt came from an editorial, which also ripped Democrats. “A vote is a vote,” the editorial said. “It is particularly egregious for House Democrats to attempt to rescind the outcome on an issue so clear-cut as public assistance for illegal aliens.”
The franking commission staff also balked at using the term “arm-twisting” to describe Democrats’ efforts to get Members to change their votes.
“Several minutes of arm-twisting” was watered down to “several minutes of having enough Members change their vote to alter the outcome.”
Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), said the original letter had been rejected on Aug. 20 because it failed to meet the franking rules, and the final letter was approved on Aug. 24. Kyle Anderson, a Democratic House Administration spokesman, said the Democrats had no record of the request, but noted that Republican staff generally vets Republican requests first and vice versa before giving them to their counterparts.
“The Republican staff on the initial letter said ‘This won’t fly,’” said Russell Roberts, Mica’s chief of staff.
Roberts said there was still some concern from the Democrats on the final watered-down letter, because it says Democrats were “forced” to form a special committee to investigate the matter, but the letter ultimately received a thumbs-up.
The franking commission regulates everything from the size of photos of the lawmaker to the number of times one party or the other can be named on a page (generally twice per page). But many of the guidelines are just that — guidelines, leaving much discretion to the commission and its staff.