Moran-Tiahrt Race Could Unleash the Franked Mail

Posted April 2, 2010 at 5:26pm

The mailboxes, inboxes and voicemail boxes of Kansans could be overflowing this spring.

The state is home to the only 2010 election contest in which two incumbent House Members will face off — Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are vying to become the GOP candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Sam Brownback (R) — making it a potential showcase for Congressional franking.

While the frank — in which a Member uses his signature to post official mail — is a perk intended to ease communication between Members and their constituents, it often draws fire from critics as an unofficial campaign tool for incumbent lawmakers.

Both House Members and Senators are allowed to tap their official Congressional budgets to issue mass mailings, which might range from postcards to glossy full-color brochures.

The mailings must conform to a variety of restrictions, including a prohibition on mentioning a Member’s campaign activities. But lawmakers generally have wide latitude about what they send out to their districts.

A review of House spending records, as well as copies of each office’s franked mail maintained by the Clerk of the House, shows the two Kansas lawmakers differ starkly in their use of the frank.

Tiahrt, whose southeastern Kansas district includes Wichita, is the more prolific mailer, sending just more than 1 million pieces of mail in calendar year 2009 at a cost of about $107,000. The House has not yet released spending data for the first quarter of 2010.

Official records of Tiahrt’s franked mail include dozens of targeted postcard mailings — most announcing Tiahrt’s town hall meetings and “satellite office hours,” in which a Tiahrt aide visits a local courthouse or city hall to meet with constituents. Tiahrt also sent an annual graduation letter and copies of the United States Capitol Historical Society’s annual calendar.

In 2008, Tiahrt spent close to $79,000 on about 559,000 pieces of mail, which included a similar mix of postcards, newspaper announcements and a historical society calendar.

Tiahrt spokeswoman Wendy Knox acknowledged most of the mass mail is aimed at announcing the office’s traveling staffers as well as the town halls.

“We have staff that make themselves available to meet with people at different locations, and that gets a great response,” Knox said.

After the most recent redistricting based on the 2000 Census, each House district includes about 647,000 individuals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Moran, who announced his bid for the Senate in November 2008, reported issuing 75,000 pieces of mail in calendar year 2009 at a cost of about $7,800.

Prior to spending funds for a mailing in the third quarter of 2009, Moran had reported no franked mail since the fourth quarter of 2005, according to House spending records, although copies of mass mailings maintained by the Clerk of the House include transcripts of messages announcing a handful of telephonic town hall meetings in Moran’s district in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

A Moran aide said Friday that his boss prefers to use telephone meetings in his district, noting the 1st district covers most of the state.

“There’s a balance between using [the frank] to communicate with constituents but also using it effectively. … We stay in touch with the constituents in different ways,” Moran spokeswoman Lindsey Trent said. She said each call is made to about 25,000 numbers and estimated most calls include about 1,000 participants.

Critics of the Congressional frank contend that the mailings equate to taxpayer-funded promotional materials for incumbents.

“The very existence of the franking privilege … allows incumbents to portray themselves in a very favorable light,” National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp said.

A study conducted by the Congressional Research Service found that 84 percent of House lawmakers sent at least one mass mailing each year from 1997 to 2007.

Among those Members who sent mass mailings during that period, the average lawmaker issued 304,227 pieces of mail and spent $55,308 on postage, the study found.

But the House prohibits lawmakers from sending mail outside of their Congressional districts, a rule enacted in 1992 as the result of a federal appellate court decision that declared the practice unconstitutional.

But Sepp asserted that limitation doesn’t stop Members from utilizing the frank as an unofficial extension of their campaigns.

“What you can do … is cover a pretty large chunk of territory with mailings that can say, ‘Look at the job I’ve done in the House,’ and leave voters to draw their own conclusions,” Sepp said.

Federal law does prohibit Members from issuing mass mailings within 90 days of an election in which they are a candidate.

The Kansas lawmakers face a cutoff date for mass mail in early May for their Aug. 3 primary.