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A Frank Display of Congressional Mail

Back in the heady days of the 2010 election, tea-party-backed GOP candidates loved to rail against their incumbent foes’ use of Congressional mailing privileges as a symbol of the fiscal dysfunction of Congress and the need for sweeping reforms.

So it might come as a surprise to some of their conservative supporters that once safely ensconced in their Congressional offices, many of those same critics have become the biggest users of the House’s taxpayer-funded mailing system.

The franking system is designed to provide lawmakers with a taxpayer-funded way in which to communicate with their constituents about their activities in Congress. Although campaigning is specifically prohibited, lawmakers often walk up to the line of impropriety with the wording of their mailings.

According to an analysis of House disbursement records, from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012, there were eight Republicans and two Democrats who made up the top 10 Members using the service — Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

Those numbers include both the base reported costs as well as amendments to their initial reports. Almost 90 Members listed in federal records either spent no money on franking over that period or did not report spending any funds on it.

Of those 10, at least four of the Republicans — Heck, Schilling, McKinley and Guinta — ran, at least in part, on criticizing incumbents over their mailing practices.

During that period, Heck has spent an estimated $422,000, Schilling has racked up $318,000, McKinley has totaled $312,000, and Guinta has totaled $308,000.

By federal spending standards, none of them even registers as a blip on the radar, about .000034 percent of the $3.8 trillion the federal government will spend in 2012.

But politically, it can be sizable. Congressional spending on mailings has long been used as campaign fodder, and during the 2010 cycle, tea party candidates seized upon it as a metaphor for runaway spending and irresponsibility on the part of entrenched incumbents.

For instance, Schilling hammered then-Rep. Phil Hare (D) for his use of the franking system to send out mailers.

“I think the American taxpayer deserves the dignity of having their dollars used efficiently. It’s certainly not appropriate for a sitting Congressman to spend $70,000 in taxpayer dollars on a campaign mailer promoting himself to voters within a district. When I’m elected to Congress, I will be a steward of taxpayer dollars and make sure that they are used efficiently and effectively,” Schilling said in a June 2010 blog post on his campaign site.

Likewise, in January 2010, Heck used the issue as part of his attacks on then-Rep. Dina Titus (D), arguing that she was “desperate to keep her taxpayer funded title, paycheck and mailing privileges and will do anything to avoid getting a real job.”

In a June 9, 2010, blog post entitled “More Propaganda From Carol Shea-Porter, Paid for by YOU the Taxpayer,” Guinta was harshly critical of a recent “Congressional update” mailer circulated to constituents by Shea-Porter on her economic legislative efforts.

“Clearly this was not an ‘update,’ it was Carol Shea-Porter campaigning with our tax dollars. These flyers were mailed not only to each household, but to individual voters, creating a great waste of taxpayer money and paper,” Guinta wrote.

“There is a thin line between maintaining a rapport with one’s constituents and electioneering. These pamphlets violate the idea of a ‘Congressional Update,’ and show an abuse of a representative’s franking privileges,” he added.

Likewise, McKinley included franking reform in his “McKinley Plan for Congressional Reform.”

“David McKinley believes that it’s wrong to abuse taxpayer money by funding campaign-style ‘constituent’ mailings and phone calls during re-election years,” the plan said, according to his website, which also noted McKinley would “sponsor legislation to place greater restrictions on the timing and types of communications sent with taxpayer money.”

Despite these attacks, all four have ended up using the franking system, often to circulate mailings that come off as more self-promotional than informational. In one of his mailings targeted at seniors, Guinta includes a picture of himself receiving an award from the 60 Plus Association “for his work in Congress to protect and preserve Medicare benefits.”

Or there’s the Schilling mailing on the economy in which he touts his efforts to control spending. “I have supported trillions of dollars in reductions to both short-term and long-term spending. On a more personal level, I’ve led by example to protect taxpayer dollars in my office,” Schilling says in the mailer.

Obviously, none of the Republicans who have used the franking system are big spenders by any stretch, and many, like Heck, have taken significant steps to cut not only spending generally, but also within their own offices.

For instance, USA Today recently ranked Heck 398th out of 435 Members of the House in terms of his spending, and the lawmaker spent only 77 percent of his entire office budget in 2011. And Heck voted against the recent legislative branch spending bill because it froze Members’ budgets rather than reduced them.

“When Congressman Heck came to Washington, he made constituent communications and assisting constituents with case work the top priorities of his office. Rep. Heck spent less than 40 cents a constituent on mail that focused on announcing available constituent services, updates on major federal policy issues like health care, the debt and the federal budget and soliciting responses from Nevadans on issues important to them,” Heck spokesman Greg Lemon said Monday.

But Schilling spokeswoman Andie Pivarunas did defend her boss’s use of the mass mailing system, arguing it is a critical way to communicate with the district. “They stand in stark contrast to those he criticized. We sent five informative mailers with updates on issues Congress was considering and actions Congressman Schilling was taking on behalf of constituents,” Pivarunas said.

“They also sought feedback, asking constituents to return a tear-off questionnaire so the Congressman could better know what issues were of concern to them. We sent two postcards specifically regarding Medicare, two postcards inviting folks to the opening of new regional district offices and one postcard inviting folks to a forum on veterans issues. And we sent three letters specifically regarding ways we could help veterans,” she added.

Spokesmen for Guinta and McKinley did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Democrats are clearly aware that despite their complaints about the perks of office, Republicans are enjoying them all the same. So much so, in fact, that Democrats this month forced a floor vote on a motion to reconsider that would have cut franking spending by 10 percent. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.) was the only Republican to vote for that measure.

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