Almost three decades of Members mailing glossy newsletters and legislative updates to their constituents has cost taxpayers more than $1.4 billion — and most of it was spent during election years.
Those facts, outlined in a new study by the Congressional Research Service, have further bolstered the case made by taxpayer watchdog groups, who maintain that the long-standing Congressional privilege of sending mass mailings on the government’s dime is wasteful and useless.
“It costs too much money, and they should stop doing it,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “For the amount of money they spent here, you could have had three and a half bridges to nowhere.”
Groups like ATR have argued for years that this privilege, called franking, unfairly charges taxpayers for mailings that they say act as campaign materials. To support their argument, they point to spikes in spending.
For example, the Sept. 25 CRS report found that in fiscal 2006 — an election year — Members spent $34.3 million on official mail, most of which was mass mailings. But for 2005 that number dropped to $17.6 million. It’s evidence, critics say, of a system that has been abused.
“As far as mass mailing goes, I see frankly no real justification,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a critic of franking. “It just gives incumbents that advantage. We have enough advantages already.”
That doesn’t mean Members haven’t drastically cut down on how much they spent on franking. In 1988, Congress spent about $113 million on official mail, about 70 percent more than in 2006. But Flake argues that the excesses of the 1980s shouldn’t make Members feel better about their wasteful spending today.
“There were a lot of things being done at that time just beyond the pale,” he said. “I don’t think it ought to be comforting to any of us.”
Flake has introduced a bill that would require Members to put the price of every mass mailing on the mail itself, letting constituents know exactly how much they paid to get that information. But his bill has gathered only one co-sponsor, and he was uncertain Monday of whether he would get a significant amount of support. Both parties are guilty of this “blatant campaigning,” he said, and there are only a handful of Members who don’t use the privilege.
“It seems that every decade or two, they appoint a franking commission because it just becomes so blatant and so bad,” he said. “I think we’ve got to be hitting that point.”
But there are plenty of Members from both parties who disagree. Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) said he sends about three mass mailings a year, updating constituents on legislation and asking for feedback on what issues they want addressed. From April 1 to June 30, Brown spent $85,300 on 398,000 pieces of mail, one of the highest amounts spent on franking in the House for that quarter.
“How can we represent if they don’t know who we are?” he said, adding that his district, which includes parts of Charleston County and Myrtle Beach, constantly is growing. “I’m not spending money on me personally or on a fancy office. I’m trying to keep my constituents as informed as possible.”
Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) also argued that franking is a good way to keep Members accountable. He spent $105,815 on mass mail from April 1 to June 30 — the most of any Member that quarter — although he spent less earlier in the year.
“I believe in accountability, which requires communicating with my constituents on the issues that they tell me are most important to them — gas prices, seniors’ issues, jobs and economic development, to name a few,” he said in an e-mail. “Also, every piece of mail I send out provides constituents with information they can use, such as information on available federal grants and small business loans, and invites them to participate in their democracy at upcoming town hall meetings and Congress on Your Corner events.”
Several watchdogs groups would like to see Members never spend government money on mass mailings, instead limiting franking privileges to responding to constituents’ mail. But Brown said that different districts have different needs, and while some might have a steady population that is well-versed on their Representatives in Congress, others need more information.
But the CRS report suggests that Members don’t use franking to just send updates to constituents throughout the year. Instead, franking costs skyrocket during August of election years — right before the 90-day period prior to an election when Representatives aren’t allowed to send mass mailings. There’s also a spike in December of odd-numbered years, suggesting a scramble to get out mail on lawmakers’ accomplishments over the year. In December 2005, close to $6 million was spent on official mail, while in August 2006, more than $4 million was spent.
This pattern implies that franking has become a campaign tool, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
“Just having something appear in someone’s mailbox makes it seem like [Members are] saying something good about themselves,” he said. “I think anything that occurs in that period of time is going to seem like something that is related to the election.”
However, the CRS report pointed out that the total spent during election years is unfairly skewed because of the span of a fiscal year. For example, because a fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, both the December spike of an odd-numbered year and the August spike of an even-numbered election year are counted in the same fiscal year. However, each occur during different Congressional sessions.
But watchdog groups argue that no matter how you calculate it, taxpayers are paying the same amount for an unnecessary privilege. And most probably don’t even know it, Norquist said.
“The public would be both surprised how much is spent and rather irritated,” he said.