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Coronavirus dominates early 2020 franking, with blackout lifted

Big shift in topics from end of 2019 to present time

Across the country, people are receiving email newsletters, Facebook ads and old-fashioned mailers from their congressional representatives, with information and resources about the coronavirus response and economic impacts, as members of Congress flex their franking privilege to communicate with constituents about the pandemic.

According to the Franking Commission, there has been a huge uptick in volume of franked materials in recent months, from radio ads, to postal mail, robocalls and emails.

Members feel a sense of urgency to get information on stemming the spread of the disease and on emergency resources to district residents, according to Rep. Susan A. Davis, chairwoman of the Franking Commission.

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“At this time, I think that it’s just a really remarkable tool to have, to be able to reach people during an emergency in their lives, when they’re feeling so disoriented and really want to know that somebody’s working for them,” the California Democrat told CQ Roll Call.

Total requests to the Franking Commission jumped nearly threefold in March and April, from 651 in January and 559 in February to 1,577 in March and 1,529 in April. Data through May 18 was on track to continue the increased volume.

Davis’ office sent out a survey to constituents about coronavirus impacts, emails about food security resources offered by the state and detailed information about accessing the direct payments to taxpayers that were part of the third package of relief legislation passed by Congress.

Davis said the Franking Commission has encouraged members and their offices to put a human touch on the coronavirus communications, mixing empathy with essential information.

“I always felt that in addition to sending the information to people I always wanted to say something to them, to just acknowledge that, you know, we feel for you and we’re thinking about you. I hear from a lot of constituents that they’ve really appreciated that,” Davis said in an interview.

A “Coronavirus Relief Guide for Iowa Families” put out by Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne takes just the tone Davis prescribed.

“Please know I am listening and fighting for you,” reads a letter from Axne included in the guide. “I’m going to keep fighting to get you the help you need, for as long as you need it. If you feel overwhelmed by all of the confusing and conflicting information out there, you are not alone.”

Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil, the top Republican on the Franking Commission, has tailored information to key audiences. His office sent a flyer in the mail and a phone message warning about coronavirus scams and details about an upcoming telephone town hall on avoiding scams. Older Americans are the most vulnerable to phone scams and may not be on social media to see a Facebook ad or tweet.

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.

Franking communications for all House members can be found in a searchable database on the House clerk’s office website, which allows people who aren’t constituents or didn’t receive the messages directly, including the media, to view them.

Nonpartisan information about COVID-19 and related resources jumped to 95 percent of the content in franked communications in recent months. That’s a departure from late 2019, when impeachment and other divisive topics were frequently featured in franked materials.

North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong’s 2019 franking requests included Facebook ads focused on immigration, the border wall and impeachment, in addition to alerts about town hall events and general constituent services. All of Armstrong’s franked communications in 2020 focus on the coronavirus, including email newsletters with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and detailed roundups of the first few coronavirus relief packages and answers to frequently asked questions.

In early March, the House waived the standard 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. That has left members free to send updates to constituents on the latest CDC data, details on direct payments to families and other coronavirus material.

[House OKs constituent mailings on coronavirus despite blackout period]

The blackout period is rooted in concerns that members could use the mailings or communications to gain an advantage in reelection battles. But the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards specifically allows for communications in this period “regarding threats to life safety.”

Telephone town halls are one form of constituent outreach that are booming during the pandemic, with some members reporting thousands of participants, as opposed to hundreds before the pandemic began.

“The interesting thing today is that more people are home. So that’s a big change for a lot of members, that you can call people in the middle of the day and they’ll answer their phone,” said Davis.

She said some franking funds had been used for robocalls to alert constituents of upcoming telephone town hall meetings.

Republican Bradley Byrne of Alabama also said he’s been holding telephone town halls with an uptick in turnout. He said the increased participation seemed to follow the heightened concern and uncertainty that Americans face.

“A lot of people” is how Byrne described turnout. “You know there’s a lot of concern out there, and early on there were just so many questions. Unfortunately, a lot of their questions we couldn’t answer, [and we] would say, ‘We will get back to you.’”

But he said the big turnout and a flood of questions gave his staff the clear task of making sure those inquiries were answered and keeping the information flowing.

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