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A Frank Display of Congressional Mail

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Joe Heck spent an estimated $422,000 on franking from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012.

Back in the heady days of the 2010 election, tea-party-backed GOP candidates loved to rail against their incumbent foes’ use of Congressional mailing privileges as a symbol of the fiscal dysfunction of Congress and the need for sweeping reforms.

So it might come as a surprise to some of their conservative supporters that once safely ensconced in their Congressional offices, many of those same critics have become the biggest users of the House’s taxpayer-funded mailing system.

The franking system is designed to provide lawmakers with a taxpayer-funded way in which to communicate with their constituents about their activities in Congress. Although campaigning is specifically prohibited, lawmakers often walk up to the line of impropriety with the wording of their mailings.

According to an analysis of House disbursement records, from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012, there were eight Republicans and two Democrats who made up the top 10 Members using the service — Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

Those numbers include both the base reported costs as well as amendments to their initial reports. Almost 90 Members listed in federal records either spent no money on franking over that period or did not report spending any funds on it.

Of those 10, at least four of the Republicans — Heck, Schilling, McKinley and Guinta — ran, at least in part, on criticizing incumbents over their mailing practices.

During that period, Heck has spent an estimated $422,000, Schilling has racked up $318,000, McKinley has totaled $312,000, and Guinta has totaled $308,000.

By federal spending standards, none of them even registers as a blip on the radar, about .000034 percent of the $3.8 trillion the federal government will spend in 2012.

But politically, it can be sizable. Congressional spending on mailings has long been used as campaign fodder, and during the 2010 cycle, tea party candidates seized upon it as a metaphor for runaway spending and irresponsibility on the part of entrenched incumbents.

For instance, Schilling hammered then-Rep. Phil Hare (D) for his use of the franking system to send out mailers.

“I think the American taxpayer deserves the dignity of having their dollars used efficiently. It’s certainly not appropriate for a sitting Congressman to spend $70,000 in taxpayer dollars on a campaign mailer promoting himself to voters within a district. When I’m elected to Congress, I will be a steward of taxpayer dollars and make sure that they are used efficiently and effectively,” Schilling said in a June 2010 blog post on his campaign site.

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