Politics

House Members Squeezed in Last-Minute Spending on Mail Franking, Advertising Before Elections

Restrictions on pre-election constituent communication meant members spent more in a shorter period of time

Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin was the biggest spender on a mailing practice known as franking during the third quarter of 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House lawmakers spent millions of dollars on nonpolitical, constituent communications — on the taxpayers’ dime — in the weeks before a “blackout” deadline before November’s elections, according to a Roll Call analysis of receipts recently published by the chamber’s chief administrative officer.

Members of Congress can send this type of mail, a perk known as “franking” that dates back to the Colonial era, by using their signatures instead of stamps. It’s meant to communicate information about a lawmakers’ legislative duties and constituent services, according to the Committee on House Administration. 

Concerns about members using it to gain an advantage in re-election battles have led to a slew of regulations limiting the practice, including a ban on franked mass mailers (anything totaling 500 mail pieces or more) and advertising, starting 90 days before elections in which the member is a candidate.

This year, the ban came into effect on Aug. 11 for the general election, and 90 days before each of the members’ earlier primaries.  

House members’ $5.5 million spending on mail and advertising reported in the third quarter of 2016 dwarfed the $3 million filed during the same quarter in 2015 (when there was no blackout), according to a review of historical records housed by the investigative news website ProPublica. The quarter runs from July through September, though the filings include some mail and advertising from earlier in the year that weren’t logged into the House financial system until the third quarter.

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Because of the blackout, these totals indicate that in the lead-up to the election, members spent more on mail and advertising over a shorter length of time.

Roll Call has previously reported that members in vulnerable House races this Congress outspent their colleagues on franked mail almost 3 to 1, suggesting a link between the taxpayer-funded service and members’ re-election hopes.

In the third quarter report, Rep. Bruce Poliquin topped the list of spending. The Maine Republican, who faced a competitive general election race, reported $166,000 on mail franking and advertising in the third quarter. His largest expenditure was $83,600 on mail in August.

Poliquin press secretary Brendan Conley said his office put “a priority on being as responsive and as engaging with our constituents as possible.” Some of the congressman’s franking this year focused on town halls regarding the opioid addiction epidemic, Conley said.

Both mail franking and advertising — which can cover expenses such as notices for town hall meetings, opinion surveys relating to the members’ official duties and sign-ups for the members’ e-newsletters — are subject to review by the six-member bipartisan Franking Commission.

Poliquin won his re-election race, which had been rated a Tossup by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call Race Ratings.

Tennessee GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais filed the second-most spending during the quarter, though much of the $100,820 he spent came from electronic advertising during the winter and spring. His advertising came just before the blackout period for the congressman’s competitive primary race in early August, something his Chief of Staff Richard Vaughn said his office is forced to do in election years.

“In nonelection years, I break it out over a 12-month period, but in election years, it gets packed into that three-month period,” Vaughn said. “I understand the reason they do [the blackout], but it certainly does hinder our ability to reach out to our constituents.”

Not all members at the top of the spending list, however, were in tight races.

New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins, who had already won his June primary, filed nearly $77,000 of mail franking receipts during the third quarter. His winning general election race had been rated as Safe Republican. Utah Republican Rep. Mia Love, whose race was rated Republican Favored, spent about $75,000.

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