Since he entered Congress after the 1994 elections, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) has taken on, with little success, a Congressional perk that taxpayer watchdog groups love to hate: the frank.
“The whole franking system has gotten way, way out of control in the sense that people are using it now to self-promote themselves,” LaHood said. “I think the taxpayer funds are being misused here.”
Although fiscal conservatives like Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist might be on his side, LaHood is among a minute contingent of Members seeking to place limits on the franking system.
Franking in the United States dates back to the Continental Congress. It’s designed to facilitate communications between Members and constituents, although opponents argue it has been used in recent years more as a self-promotion tool.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also has introduced a measure this session to reform the franking process, while Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced wider-range election reform measures that include new franking restrictions.
Congress spent $176.2 million on official mail costs from 2000 to 2006, an average of $25.2 million a year, according to an April 2007 Congressional Research Service report.
Members of the House used the privilege far more than Senators — more than 87 percent of all franked mail came from Representatives, according to the CRS report.
A review of the most recent House disbursement records — which cover the period from April 1 to June 30 — shows that Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) spent $105,815 on 281,672 pieces of mass mail during that period, more money than any other House Member.
Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) came in second, spending about $96,000 to mail 210,919 pieces of mail, while Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) spent $85,300 on 398,000 pieces of mail.
Members can’t use the franking privilege for just anything; regulations specify that franking must be used for matters of public concern. In the House, mass mailings are reviewed by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, commonly known as the franking commission, chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.).
But LaHood argues that despite regulations, most Members send out mass mailings simply as a way to promote themselves for free.
LaHood’s bill would amend the U.S. Code to place strict limits on mail that Members of the House could frank. While Members still could send out letters responding to constituent correspondence, information on voting registration and federal documents such as the Congressional Record, they no longer could mail newsletters, questionnaires or congratulatory notices.
“I think it is the perversion of the system,” LaHood said of many Members’ current franking habits.
Meanwhile, Flake’s bill seeks to let constituents know what their mail costs. Titled the Franking Reform Adds Needed Knowledge Act, the measure would require franked mail to include a note that reads: “The aggregate cost of this mailing to the taxpayers is X.”
The idea is that if Members were more upfront with their mailing habits, they might be more cautious with how much mail they send out.
Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, said the requirement “would be a useful illustration to taxpayers that would help to weigh whether the piece of propaganda is worth the price.”
Under current law, each mailing must include the statement: “Prepared, Published, and Mailed at Taxpayer Expense.” If Flake’s law is passed, both statements would need to be included on mass mailings.
Norquist praised Flake’s bill for requiring Members to be upfront with what they spend.
“A Congressman that won’t do that is telling you an awful lot about himself or herself,” Norquist said.
Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing in the House Administration Committee, where both were referred. And neither has any co-sponsors, something not surprising to advocates of franking reform.
“The trappings of incumbency have become so embedded on Capitol Hill that any attempt to reform this privilege just meets with immediate resistance,” Sepp noted.
In a statement, House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said a high reporting and transparency requirement exists for franking.
That includes information on average cost per household, average number of pieces per household and total cost.
“Members are encouraged to communicate frequently and consistently with their constituents and the franking process has been an important element of that,” Brady said.
If Flake’s requirement could be enacted, it might lead to changes similar to the ones found in LaHood’s bill, Norquist argued. If Members could directly see how much they spend, a voting bloc in Congress could emerge to advocate for change, he said.
Perhaps the franking reform with greatest chance of passage comes in the companion legislation introduced by Tierney and Durbin.
The legislation, among other things, would establish and enforce campaign spending limits by providing a set amount of public funding for all candidates who agree to take no private contributions.
Franking-wise, the measure would extend the period of time that prohibits Senators from franking mail prior to an election and also would place new franking restrictions on committees.
Senate restrictions prohibit Members from sending mail 60 days before an election; that restriction is 90 days in the House. (Not surprisingly, Members send out the most franked mail in December in odd-numbered years and July or August during even-numbered years, the CRS report noted.)
The legislation would extend the prohibited time in the Senate to 90 days. It also would prohibit a Congressional committee or subcommittee from sending out mass mailings for the same period, if the chairman or ranking member is running for re-election.
Franking costs actually have decreased from 20 years ago, Sepp noted. In 1988, for example, Members spent almost $80 million on franking, according to the NTU, more than three times their recent yearly average.
But the decline could be misleading, Sepp argued, as technology also has transformed how Members target their mailings.
In previous decades, Members needed to blanket their district to get the message out; now they have an array of CD-ROM and other programs that can be used to target constituent groups.
Such technology has “transformed [mailings] from a shotgun to very powerful sniper rifles,” Sepp joked.
For Norquist, the struggle is just making it easy for taxpayers to know how much money their Member is spending on mailings.
“If they paid for it,” Norquist said, “they should know how much it cost.”