Most congressional perks are of a more modern vintage, but one—the franking privilege—has been around since 1789. The ability to send official communications free of postage is highly valued by members, who spend an average of $28,000 per year on franked mail, according to freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada.
As far as Rosen is concerned, that’s way too much. The Democrat, who’s running for Senate, is seeking to drastically limit members’ mailings, with a particular focus on campaign-style communiqués. Among the provisions in her new bill, which faces an uphill battle, are setting a $10,000 annual limit per office on all franked material, banning the use of photos on mailers, and prohibiting physical mass mailers (defined as over 500 unsolicited, materially identical pieces) in election years when the member is up for reelection or running for another office.
Currently, members may use any portion of their Members’ Representational Allowance on franked mail, as long as the mail pieces are approved by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards. Also known as the Franking Commission, it already enforces a number of limits on what is acceptable: Offices cannot ask for partisan affiliation, use “derogatory language” against colleagues, send holiday greetings, or use the frank within 90 days of an election.
A spokeswoman for the Franking Commission, which is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans in the House, said, “Communicating their positions and soliciting feedback from their constituents is an important part of a member’s job, and the House has set forth strict rules.”
Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, said that $10,000 is adequate for the original purpose of constituent response, pointing out that it would cover just over 20,000 first-class envelopes.
“Having seen what happens with a lot of these mass mailings, they can [work with a budget of $10,000],” agrees Issue One executive director Meredith McGehee, pointing to the rise in online communications. “Franked mail is almost quaint.”
McGehee, who supports tighter limits on mass mailings, says the frank is one of the biggest advantages incumbents have over challengers. She says there is “a skill-set in the dark arts” of using franking to one’s advantage and working within the boundaries of what the Franking Commission will accept.
“One of the first things you’re taught when you’re elected to Congress is to use the frank,” McGehee said, and “there’s a good return on investment if you’re a fairly smart, robust user of the frank.”
Perhaps that’s why, unlike other congressional perks, the frank has not been as common a piñata for reform-minded members. Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia introduced bills in the 113th and 114th Congress to end franking entirely, both of which attracted only a handful of cosponsors.
According to Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute, the last major franking reforms occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Prohibiting mass mailers entirely in election calendar years would have a significant affect on campaigns and constituent communication. Some candidates in potentially competitive races this year, like Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, a Senate candidate, are known for high franking spending.
A staffer for Rosen said a calendar-year ban would make it “extremely unlikely” that mail was being used for campaigning rather than informational purposes.
One Republican direct-mail consultant said the bill would have a financial impact on the industry. “No one’s getting rich on franked mail,” the consultant said, “but mostly we use it as a way to bridge campaign seasons. What it probably means is we couldn’t keep as many people in the offseason as we’d like to.”
A Congressional Research Service report shows that the second and third quarters (March-September) of each Congress’s second year account for 30 percent of all franked communication, a disproportionate amount considering all members are under the pre-general-election blackout starting in early August.
Glassman, the author of the CRS report, says a calendar-year blackout could help level the playing field within Congress, pointing out that for members in states with late-summer primaries, the blackout effectively extends from May to November.
“Twenty-five years ago, would that have had any chance of passing the House? No,” Glassman said, noting the sharp decline in franked mail pieces sent over recent years. “But now, some members might just shrug their shoulders.”
Sepp said a law “lends greater authority to any underlying regulations on content” than the existing rules do. The Franking Commission “[tries] to do a thorough job,” he said, “but there are judgment calls made that aren’t given the scrutiny they need without a statute.”