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Congress's mail prostitution ring; why America should be frank-incensed.


You can't fully appreciate just how much mail members of Congress send to their constituents until you've been underneath the Rayburn congressional office building. Walking the miles of beige corridors, you bump into a pile of mail every few yards. The stuff's everywhere. Boxes and boxes of it. Newsletters and postcards, notices and invitations, all of it neatly sorted and stacked nearly to the ceiling.

In the rooms around the House printer, two floors below Rayburn's basement, there's still more. It's a fantastic scene. The bass hum of printing presses echoes constantly from the corridor walls. Men drive forklifts back and forth between rooms full of enormous rolls of white paper and the pressroom, carefully maneuvering through hallways not built with forklifts in mind. The air is hot and smells strongly of ink. And every square foot of the walls, up to eye level, is covered with mail.

In place of a stamp, every piece of mail bears the signature--the frank, as it's known--of the congressman or senator sending it out, and that means the pieces are delivered at no cost to him. The U.S. Postal Service is paid each year for the cost of these mailings from federal money appropriated for this purpose. This free mail perk, created by the Continental Congress in 1775, was intended primarily for intergovernmental mail and individual correspondence with constituents--helping a pensioner locate a lost government check, or answering a complaint. In practice, though, less than 4 percent of the mail leaving House and Senate offices is used for this kind of constituent response. Now more than ever, congressmen use the frank as a year-round campaign tool. The rules governing the frank say that's okay.

The basic rules are simple enough. The House and Senate each set aside a certain amount of money every year for franked mail. Out of that sum, each representative may send out three districtwide third-class mass mailings (that's any batch including more than 500 pieces), and each senator may send out three statewide third-class mass mailings. You've seen them--the four-page letters marked "postal patron" that your representative in Washington sends to remind you of what a great job he's doing and how much he cares about you personally.

Yet, thanks to other rules on franked mail, too many of these letters aren't covered by these restrictions. For instance, "any mail matter which relates solely to a notice of appearance or a scheduled itinerary of a member in the area . . . shall not count against the limitation." That's why the number of franked postcards announcing House members' forthcoming appearances is staggering. And in both bodies, members may use franking money not consumed by the mass mailings to pay for first-class letters to individuals. In the Senate the franking budget is divided among the members, and after it's spent, further expenditures can be taken from their individual office budgets or leftover campaign funds. All these transactions are made public. But in the House, the franking budget isn't divided up and individual franking totals aren't disclosed; what's more, the Post Office is required to deliver all franked mail from the House even after the year's franking funds are exhausted. So in practice, House members have no real limit on the amount of franked mail they can send out. This year, for example, the House appropriated $44 million for franked mail, but by year's end representatives will have sent out nearly $82 million worth. Any amount by which House members exceed their franking budget is simply tacked on to the next year's appropriation. This allows House members to ignore budget constraints completely.

This set-up explains why in 1990 the Senate and the House together will spend $106 million on their "free" mail. That's more than the federal government spends on high school dropout prevention.

The main problem with the frank, however, isn't what it costs each year (in Washington nobody raises an eyebrow over anything less than a billion anyway), but the tremendous advantage it gives to incumbents, who can use it to flood their constituents with what amounts to campaign literature. More and more in recent years, senators and especially representatives are using the frank to send letters targeted to a particular group of constituents, chosen from minutely detailed lists of people. Your congressman compiles vast amounts of information about you by buying and cross-referencing membership lists from professional organizations, alumni associations, churches, and motor vehicle bureaus. He may send you a letter describing a particular piece of legislation having to do with your profession or hobby. Monthly readers will remember a May 1980 article by a congressional aide who described how he did just that:

"I began with a personal letter to each of the special interest groups we had on file. The physicians received a letter from my congressman enclosed with a reprint from the Congressional Record of his recent remarks on the horrors of socialized medicine. The docs ate it up. The nurses got a letter pointing out the congressman's recent vote to increase funds in the federal budget for nurse training programs, along with a copy of his impassioned comments on the subject. Each of these letters began, 'Knowing of your intense personal interest in any legislation affecting physicians/nurses, I thought you might be interested to see. . . .'"

If you're a senator and your constituency is split on an issue, you can mail two or three different letters on that issue to different constituents and avoid taking a stand that might offend potential voters. Or if you do take a position contrary to a number of constituents, you can send a letter explaining how you took their views into consideration in making your decision.

Mail bonding

The rise of targeted computer-generated mass mailings has spawned a franking industry in the House and Senate to handle the tremendous amounts of mail leaving congressional offices. All mass mailings, whether they're printed by printers under the Rayburn building or by an outside firm, must go through the Folding Room, where they are sorted and boxed by zip code. The Franking Commission, which oversees all of this mail, has two majority staff members, two minority staff members, a legal administrator, and a public relations director.

And there are other expenses that are the direct result of the frank but are not commonly associated with it. Congressional staffs have grown to take on the hours of computer work generated by the mass mailings. "That's all they do over there. They make mail. God knows they don't make any laws," says one former House staffer.

One senate staff member estimates that mass mailings take up about half of a typical senate office computer operator's time and "about a month of the year" for the other staff members. It's this kind of manpower that enabled the Senate's two biggest frank offenders, Alan Cranston and Alfonse D'Amato, to spend $3,870,715 and $3,484,946, respectively, on franked mail in 1987-88. And on the Senate side the restrictions on franked mail keep the volume per member lower than it is in the House.

Last year Common Cause reported that of the $52,760,528 the Senate spent on mass mailings (not constituent response mail, just mass mailings) between 1987 and 1988, more than $20 million was spent by the 27 senators up for re-election--55 percent more than for the senators not running. "The frank is being used as a campaign subsidy--unabashedly and outrageously," says Senator Gordon Humphrey, critic of the frank, who spent a little over $3,000 on mass mailings last year.

The same is true in the House, where every two years the number of franked mass mailings jumps despite rules prohibiting use of the frank for campaigning. House incumbents often spend more on the frank alone than their challengers do on their entire campaign. In the last election year, 1988, House franked mail costs rose from $45 million in the preceding year to $77.9 million. In the Senate, costs rose from $19 million in 1987 to $35.5 million.

Beans to the frank

There may be a lot of rules on paper, but in practice, "There are no rules," says Rep. Bill Frenzel. "It's more loophole than law. They are hideously inadequate." A quick run through the Franking Commission's 70-page "Rules on the Use of the Congressional Frank" goes a long way toward showing how members can evade the restrictions. Throughout the book, usually right under a rule or restriction, are the big-as-a-truck loophole phrases, such as "The Commission points out that the guidelines set forth above do not carry the full force and effect of regulations . . . but have been established to assist Members in preparing newsletters and other mass mailings." The biggest joke, though, is the book's overarching rule: The frank is not to be used for patently political purposes.

Witness the guidelines laid out by the commission on the use of "personally phrased references" in newsletters: "Members are cautioned on the excessive use of personally phrased references (Member's name, 'I,' 'me,' 'the Congressman,' 'the Representative')," the rulebook says. Here's the caution: "for the most part such references shouldn't appear more than eight times a page."

But that eight times doesn't include the representative's name on the masthead, or a signature, or a photograph caption, or a reprint from a magazine. In other words, only eight personal references are allowed, unless you use more. Thus, Rep. Dennis Hastert's summer 1990 mailing packs 48 references to himself into four pages, just a handful short of Rep. Newt Gingrich's 54. Nearly every other mailing I saw (for this story I waded through a pile of about 200) had more than the prescribed eight.

The guidelines for the use of photographs are equally quirky. Members are instructed not to use more than two photos per page and are encouraged "to limit their use of photographs and text which depict them receiving awards, certificates, or commendations." Yet Hastert's mailing had three photos of him on the front page, two on every other.

To get an idea of how meaningless the guidelines truly are, here are some samples from recently mailed newsletters: There are photos of Rep. Porter Goss receiving the "Golden Bulldog Award"; Rep. Tom DeLay receiving the "Spirit of Enterprise" award; and Rep. Matthew Rinaldo being presented with the "Merit Award of the New Jersey Association of Nonprofit Housing for the Aged."

Rep. Mike Espy reprinted a page from the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun, where we're told that "Espy is able to market Mississippi and the Delta every chance he gets." A letter from a satisfied constituent gets prominent billing in Marilyn Lloyd's newsletter: "I want to thank you for your help in getting my Medicare, Part B problem straightened out. Had it not been for you, I am sure it would never have been done. It is so very satisfying to know that in our district we have a caring person like you in Washington to handle such matters for us."

"Have you ever wondered what Members of Congress do during those congressional recesses you hear about?" asks Rep. Dave Nagle's "Congressional Update." Nagle informs his constituents that he "drove an old Chevrolet to 58 Iowa cities, in all 16 Third District counties, to gather advice and hear local opinions." Rep. Jim Inhofe "has been on a budget balancing amendment crusade for more than two decades. It was 20 years ago when syndicated columnist Anthony Harrigan referred to Inhofe as 'a voice in the wilderness.' . . ."

The rules may prohibit using the frank for partisan politicking, but they somehow didn't stop Newt Gingrich from telling his constituents that "liberals want to tax everyone and give the money to government-approved day care centers. Their approach ensures that only those centers skilled at pulling political strings and jumping through bureaucratic hoops will get money. Conservatives want to empower parents with the freedom to choose child care that is right for them."

In 1983 Common Cause sued the government on the grounds that the frank gave an unfair advantage to incumbents, and lost. The court ruled that it couldn't be proven that the frank provided undue influence. But as David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union says, "Go to a consultant and ask him if he'd like a list of tens of thousands of names--who are doctors, who are the lawyers--so they could mail letters based on what their hot buttons are." If mass mailings really weren't effective at reaching people and influencing opinion, magazines wouldn't regularly use them to replenish their subscription lists. Mail-order businesses wouldn't be a multimillion dollar industry. And congressmen and senators wouldn't go through the hassle to use them.

So there's really no question that incumbents are using direct mail to gain unfair political advantage. That's why, from now on, the franking privilege should be extended only to replies to queries from constituents or government officials.

Weston Kosova is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic. Research assistance provided by Kierstan Gordon.
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Author:Kosova, Weston
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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