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Tags: lawmakers | congressmen | franking | mail

Lawmakers Reach Out More Than Ever With Franking Privileges

By    |   Wednesday, 28 January 2015 12:51 PM

If you think you're hearing more from your lawmakers, you may be right — and it's all because of the use of the congressional franking privilege, which for some 200 years has given them the ability to send out official messages to their constituents at taxpayers' expense.

But instead of using the privilege to send out only traditional mail messages, modern franking means Congress members now also emphasize email, radio, and telephone call messages over traditional mail service, reports The New York Times, meaning more messages are reaching a wider audience than ever.

Franking privileges are extended so members of Congress can communicate with their constituents, and these days can include telephoned "town-hall" meetings, surveys, and more, and for campaign purposes.

The privilege, dating from 1775, allows Congress members to send mail, under their own signatures, without postage and then reimburse the U.S. Postal Service for the franked mail, according to the Congressional Research Service.

According to a 2012 Berry College study, most politicians used franked mail while they were either seeking higher offices or were in close elections, as well as people whose home districts were far away from the capital.

But that trend is changing with nonmail communications. Just nine of the top 25 people who sent franked mail from the House from Oct. 1, 2013, through Sept. 30, 2014, were those who were running for re-election in competitive races or who were retiring.

The lawmakers using nonmail communications the most, though, were not involved in races or retiring, and were from states close to Washington, the Times reports.

And those messages didn't come cheap. During that one-year period, House members used the franking privilege to send out $22.3 million in traditional mail messages and $6.7 million on nonmail communications. Lawmakers don't send the messages out for free, however, as they are paid for from taxpayers' dollars through congressional offices' budgets, according to the Committee on House Administration.

The numbers of people sending the franked mail are down, though, with 84 percent sending such messages from 1997 to 2008, according to a Congressional Research Service report,  and 68 percent sending at least one piece of franked mail during the one year period studied between 2013 and 2014.

And some of the numbers of communications are in the millions. Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar's office sent the equivalent of 60.7 million official, unsolicited messages to his constituents between July through September 2014. Another lawmaker, Florida Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, made the equivalent of 40 million such communications in the third quarter of the year.

They stand out among the highest, as the average lawmaker sent out 27,476 nonmail messages during that time frame, reports The Times.

The messages, though, don't go out individually, as the total includes how radio ads are counted, so Cuellar's numbers tallied up because of the radio messages used to reach the 710,260 constituents in his huge district, stretching from near San Antonio to the Mexican border.

To get the total, offices multiply the number of ads by the potential audience from each radio station, said The Times.

Spokespeople for both Cuellar and Nugent said the messages are important, as they keep the lawmakers in touch with their far-flung constituents.

Nugent's costs during the third quarter tallied $8,100, and Cuellar's was $31,148, and overall, lawmakers spent $1.7 million in that period on franked, nonmail messages and $5.6 million on mail.

The highest amount spent on franked mail during that period was from Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat, whose office spent $192,631 on franked mail.

With the growth of the Internet, traditional mass "snail" mailings have dropped drastically.

About 82 percent of House members sent such mailings between 1997 and 2012 to at least 500 constituents, but the mail volume dropped from 122.6 million pieces in 1997 to 61.4 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Many House members also do not use the franking privilege. A full 285 members sent no such mail in the third quarter of last year and 197 sent no mass communications at all.

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If you think you're hearing more from your lawmakers, you may be right - and it's because of the use of the congressional franking privilege, which for 200 years has given them the ability to send out official messages to their constituents at taxpayers' expense.
lawmakers, congressmen, franking, mail
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2015-51-28
Wednesday, 28 January 2015 12:51 PM
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