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House May Get Big Boost For Election-Year Mailings

The House wants to increase Members’ office budgets next fiscal year by almost 15 percent, partly because 2010 is an election year and lawmakers anticipate a surge in franked mail.

In a recently released budget request, the House Chief Administrative Officer asked appropriators to raise the Members’ Representational Allowances — which fund everything needed to run offices, including salaries, travel and supplies — by $90 million, citing increases “due to the election year cycle.”

“In an election year the expenditures increase and then decrease in a non-election year,” the request reads.

Increases for most expenses are usually modest from year to year, accounting mostly for inflation and cost-of-living adjustments. But during election years, some accounts get a big bump.

The fiscal 2010 request includes an extra $16 million for franked mail — an 80 percent increase from fiscal 2009. The stated reason: Members send more mail to their constituents during an election year.

“It’s an incredibly naked admission that Members of Congress abuse the franking privilege for electoral purposes, even though the rules say they don’t,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “This sends the worst possible message not only to the taxpayers, but to the electoral system as a whole.”

But House officials contend that they use the phrase “election year” without meaning to draw a link to the election. The phrase is “generically used to reference the second year of a Congressional cycle,” said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for CAO Dan Beard.

“The increase occurs because in the second year of any Congress, there is traditionally more legislative news to convey to constituencies as various bills evolve through the legislative process,” he said.

Members, however, also have less time to send out official mail during the second session, thanks to House rules that prohibit any mass mailings 90 days before an election.

But they still manage to send a deluge of mailers. In fiscal 2008 — an election year — Members spent about $33 million on franked mail; 2007, however, saw about $17.5 million spent.

That fact has been a subject of debate for decades, with critics questioning whether incumbents get a leg up on challengers by showering their constituents with tax-funded mailers.

The request for fiscal 2010 would set aside about $35 million for official mail, which Ventura said was based on “statistical trends that show a need for such increases in ‘even’ years.”

However, once Members get their allowance, they have free rein to spend it on whatever office expenses they want. In 2008, the allowances ranged from $1.3 million to $1.5 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Because the House increases the franked mail appropriation every election year, they get a few thousand dollars more to spend in even-numbered years. But it disappears a year later.

In December, however, the House Administration Committee authorized a sizable boost to MRAs for 2009, and the fiscal 2010 request aims to keep them at that level.

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