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House OKs constituent mailings on coronavirus despite blackout period

Waivers in place for life-and-death matters

Congress could improve its own operations and better serve constituents through a series of proposals in reports released on Friday.
Congress could improve its own operations and better serve constituents through a series of proposals in reports released on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House has eased the strict ban on franked mass mailings ahead of elections to allow lawmakers to communicate with constituents about the coronavirus.

A Dear Colleague Letter from the House Administration Committee, referenced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the weekend, specified that coronavirus is a significant enough threat to trigger an exception to the mailing standards.

There is a 90 day “blackout period” for government funding mailings ahead of any primary or general election or caucus for any federal, state, or local election in which the member is a candidate, rooted in concerns that members could use the mailings or communications to gain an advantage in re-election battles.

But the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards specifically allows for communications in this period “regarding threats to life safety.”

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“The coronavirus qualifies as a threat to life safety, so mass mailings and mass communications limited to information about the coronavirus will generally be exempt from the blackout rule,” reads the letter from the House Administration Committee.

But the committee urges members within the blackout period to get advance approval from the Franking Commission for communication about the coronavirus to ensure compliance with franking rules.

The cost of sending mail — which technically can be anything from postcards to Facebook advertisements — comes out of House members’ office budgets.

The congressional franking privilege dates back to 1775 and allows members of Congress to mail certain communications to constituents under their signature without postage. Congress reimburses the Postal Service in bulk for all franked mail.

The House Administration Committee letter also reiterated guidance provided by the House sergeant-at-arms instructing offices to update and prepare to implement continuity of operations plans, including plans for House staffers to work remotely.

[Capitol Hill offices instructed to update pandemic plans, Office of the Attending Physician sets record straight on coronavirus]

Amid efforts to mitigate the risk and spread of the virus, there has been a scramble for cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer on Capitol Hill, where handshakes are part of the job. Staffers told CQ Roll Call last week that hand sanitizer and wipes were quickly snapped up at the office supply stores on the Capitol campus.

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