Convinced that most Americans "cuss" the unsolicited fliers that arrive in their mailbox bearing an autograph from their elected official instead of a stamp, Rep. Rob Woodall wants to upend the congressional institution known as franking.
He's not suggesting eliminating taxpayer-funded mailing privileges for Congress. Instead, the Georgia Republican wants to change the accounting system that, among other things, allows district congressional offices to self-report how much their accounts will be billed for postage.
Sixteen years as a legislative staff member taught Woodall a lot about the day-to-day logistics of the franking system. Since being elected to Congress in 2011, he's heard an earful during town halls from the constituents who think the frank suggests that once you get to Congress the rules no longer apply — no more purchasing postage, no licking stamps. “They mistakenly believe that you have free mail," Woodall said during a Monday interview, postulating that when a letter shows up with his signature, Georgians get "outraged" that it's another congressional perk. He says mail bearing the frank perpetuates the misconception that members of Congress get a lifetime of special benefits, like free health care and cushy pensions, for their service on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, Woodall introduced legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that aims at getting congressional offices to calculate their mailing costs more like businesses.
Despite changes that have reduced franking costs by almost 80 percent since the late 1980s, critics continue to view the privilege as an unnecessary and easily abused public expense. According to figures from the U.S. Postal Service, Congress spent $7.6 million on the official mail in fiscal 2013. Others point to a historical pattern of higher spending in election years — $24.8 million in fiscal 2012 — as evidence that franking is a taxpayer-funded advantage for incumbents trying to hold onto their seats. Although campaigning is specifically prohibited, lawmakers often walk up to the line of impropriety with the wording of their mailings.
Woodall says the taxpayer-funded mailing system, which dates backs to colonial times and was instituted as a way for lawmakers to communicate with constituents about their activities in Congress, had a "perfectly reasonable beginning," but the accounting is outdated.
He objects to the frank, defined by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards as a member's signature with the initials "M.C." printed immediately below, being used as a prepayment waiver or "IOU with the post office," that is later charged against member expense accounts, and to rules that allow district offices to calculate their own mail expenses.
Duckworth said members of Congress need to lead by example.
“With so many working families out there trying to make ends meet, it’s important that we meet the same obligations that our neighbors meet," she said in an email.
The bill would also undo a law enacted in 1968 that extends the franking privilege to the spouse of a member who dies in office.
“There's no reason for my wife to start signing her name upon my mail upon my death,” Woodall said. We have “got to update this system to recognize the sophistication of a modern day congressional office.”
One of the main criticisms of franking is that the system has become outdated. A recent Congressional Research Service report suggests franked mail played an important role in national politics during the 19th century. Members distributed copies of acts, bills, reports and speeches, serving as a proxy for the then non-existent Capitol Hill press corps and distributing information to local newspapers.
Two estimates made in the 1840s suggest Congress was franking 300,000 letters and 4.3 million documents each year, according to CRS, with such mail accounting for more than half of the mail leaving Washington each day. Today, members have email, websites and social media to communicate with their constituents.
Woodall said that if he had his way, members of Congress would apply for mailing permits like major businesses and institutions or pay the postage costs out of their own pockets.
"It’s just crazy ... I don’t have the choice,” he said, adding that his 10 years as chief of staff for for his House predecessor, Georgia Republican Rep. John Linder, taught him more than most members about the policy. In the district office, staffers self-report how they should be billed for the mail they drop in. "If you drop in a package, you self-report how much the package weighs," he said.
From a good government standpoint, Woodall thinks the more people understand that franking is not free mail, but a taxpayer expense, the more they will pressure their own lawmaker to stop using the privilege. He thinks the bill has potential to cut the costs overall, "If you suddenly realize that members are paying 49 cents every time they send you a piece of mail, maybe you begin to assert more leadership," adding, "The primary goal is building trust."