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House Democrats Cry Foul Over Rejected Mailings

Democratic House Members are lashing out at Republican leadership over rejected mass mailings, saying their messages lambasting the GOP budget plan and its effect on Medicare are being censored.

Five Democrats wrote to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday asking him to intervene. They say Republicans on the House franking commission, which screens the content of mass mailings paid for with Congressional funds, have become more sensitive since the May 24 special election in New York. Democrat Kathy Hochul made opposition to the plan authored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a central element of her successful campaign for the New York seat.

Republicans, on the other hand, say Democrats were similarly critical during the debate over the health care overhaul.

At issue is the ability to send provocative communications using Congressional funds. The franking commission reviews official mail, email and social media for overtly political or inflammatory content.

The commission returned a flier to Rep. Gerry Connolly on May 29 over objections to language stating that the GOP budget would “end” Medicare. The commission asked the Virginia Democrat to rephrase the passage to say the plan could “change” or “could privatize portions” of the federal health insurance program for seniors and the disabled.

Connolly called the action “Orwellian in nature.”

“It is the most extreme censorship I have ever encountered,” he told Roll Call. “And it’s all because they have been taking heat on Medicare.”

Similarly, the commission asked Rep. Ed Perlmutter to strike the words “eliminate” and “dismantle” in favor of the word “change” in a flier about the Medicare proposal. The commission also asked the Colorado Democrat to remove references to Ryan, replace “voucher” with “premium support system” and change “privatize” to “revise government program with support from private insurance companies.”

Connolly said he is fuming, particularly because the commission allowed similar language before the New York special election. Democrats widely credit the Medicare issue for turning the tide against Republican Jane Corwin, who had been favored to win the House seat.

In April, before the election, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) submitted a leaflet that depicted a tombstone emblazoned with “RIP Medicare.” It also referenced Ryan and said his plan would “kill” Medicare. The mailer was approved, along with communications from Democratic Reps. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.), David Wu (Ore.) and Bill Owens (N.Y.) that made similar references to the program’s “end.”

“They actually previously approved communication that certainly did refer to the voucher system and did refer to the Ryan plan. So what’s changed?” Connolly asked. “This is way overstepping the bounds of the franking commission.”

Republicans argue that the commission should have asked for revisions of all of the mailings, said Salley Wood, spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the franking commission.

“Given the hyper-partisan tone of several of the pieces the commission has received for review and the misrepresentation of the facts, it’s clear why they haven’t been approved,” Wood wrote in an email. “We will continue to work with the staff of the bipartisan Commission to ensure Members can accurately communicate with their constituents.”

Furthermore, Republicans pointed to fliers that the commission rejected during the health care overhaul debate, when Democrats were in control of the House. GOP Members were asked to remove references to the Democrats’ plan as a “government takeover” or a “government-run” program and to qualify the expression “job killing” as their own opinion.

But in at least one instance, another loaded description — “job crushing” — was permitted.

Democrats argue that they were consistent. “In the health care debate, which spanned a year, we were in constant discussions to try to keep the mail moving,” said Jamie Fleet, Democratic staff director for the House Administration Committee. “Before the New York election there was not a peep from them on how we were characterizing Medicare. Then the election happened and they started to object.”

Connolly and Perlmutter, along with Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop (N.Y.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa) and Joe Courtney (Conn.), sent a letter to Boehner on Tuesday asking him to step in and instruct the franking commission to allow the language.

“This politically motivated censorship undermines our ability to execute one of our primary roles and diminishes the credibility of this institution,” they wrote.

At least a couple of those Members will likely have tough re-election races. Bishop had one of the closest Congressional races of the 2010 cycle, fending off Republican Randy Altschuler by fewer than 600 votes to win a fifth term. Altschuler has indicated that he wants a rematch with Bishop next year.

Boswell is facing off against Rep. Tom Latham (R) as a result of redistricting, and the fate of Perlmutter’s district is up in the air after Colorado lawmakers failed to agree on a compromise for the new Congressional map. The state’s new lines will be decided in court this fall.

“That special election in New York was, I would guess, a pretty big wake-up call,” Boswell told Roll Call. “I have to be suspicious that they have a little protection game going on.”

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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