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Franking Fracas Hits Open Enrollment Ads

House Democrats accuse commission of playing politics

Democrats have asked Franking Commission Chairman Rodney Davis, shown here in 2014, to address complaints that the commission is unfairly blocking ads. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats have asked Franking Commission Chairman Rodney Davis, shown here in 2014, to address complaints that the commission is unfairly blocking ads. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attempts by House Democrats to promote open enrollment in the health care marketplaces are running up against arcane rules and what they call partisan politics. Lawmakers are seeking to compensate for reduced marketing on the part of the Trump administration with their own taxpayer-funded ads.

The Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year slashed advertising for by 90 percent, prompting cries of “sabotage” from Democrats and consumer advocates. House Democrats are trying to fill that gap through their own ads on social media and other outlets, but are being thwarted by Republicans on the Franking Commission who say the advertisements do not comply with congressional rules.

Franking refers to official mailings and advertisements sent at taxpayer expense. House lawmakers must have ads and some mailings approved through the Franking Commission under the House Administration Committee. But Democrats say the rules for franking are in some cases extremely specific and, in others, too vague. While guidance around self-promotion and campaigning is strict, they argue, language on how they can promote “constituent services” is unclear.

The commission draws a distinction between communications, such as emails and letters, and advertisements on social media and radio. While lawmakers can link to in communications, ads are restricted to “constituent services available through the Member’s congressional office,” according to the House member handbook.

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Republicans say that means members cannot promote any website besides their own, but Democrats say various ads linking to and other sites were approved up until mid-October. At least five Democrats ran into problems, including Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

One Democratic office attempted to recycle another member’s previously approved radio ad for, but the new ad was rejected by the commission, said an aide. Democrats are unsure if they will resolve the dispute before open enrollment for the health care marketplaces ends Dec. 15.

Democrats on the commission are attempting to resolve the issue with Chairman Rodney Davis of Illinois by calling a meeting between the two sides, according to a draft letter obtained by Roll Call. Democrats are directing consumers to their own websites that then link to in the meantime.

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“The Commission has approved such advertisements, as recently as 10/13/2017, however, other requests for nearly identical advertisements have been disapproved,” the commission’s three Democrats wrote to Davis, noting they have “encountered numerous interpretations” over the past several years.

A spokeswoman for Davis disagrees that the commission is playing politics. The commission regularly approves advertisements that reference open enrollment, she said, so long as they comply with the rules.

“The rules state that the advertisement must point to constituent services available through the Member’s Congressional Office. This rule applies to any advertisement,” she said in an email.

Open enrollment began Nov. 1 and runs for six weeks this year, just half of the previous three-month period last year. Democrats view the commission’s switch as another Republican effort to undermine the health insurance exchanges.

“The Franking Commission should meet expeditiously to clarify the rules for Members who want to directly address constituent services in their advertisements,” ranking member Susan A. Davis of California said in a statement. “This issue is more important than ever given that the Trump Administration has gutted funding for healthcare advertising.”  

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