House E-mail Given Franking Exemption

Posted September 5, 2003 at 5:11pm

Members no longer need to hesitate before hitting “send” when dispatching constituent newsletters from their House e-mail accounts.

The House Administration Committee approved Friday an exemption for subscriber e-mail lists, allowing Members to send mass e-mails to constituents without prior approval from the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, commonly known as the Franking Commission.

Until now, franked mail regulations had been applied uniformly to both standard U.S. postal mail and e-mail, requiring Members to have the commission’s approval before sending out any unsolicited mailing comprising more than 500 copies.

Those guidelines are, in part, intended to hold down the costs generated by franked mail — the House spent approximately $28 million on such mailings in 2002 and $13.9 million in 2001 — and proponents of the rules change assert that generating numerous letters online does not incur similar costs.

“These forms of communication are, in fact, different, and therefore should be regulated differently,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who also chairs the Franking Commission, during the Friday hearing.

Franking guidelines also limit Members from issuing any unsolicited franked mail exceeding 500 copies within 90 days of a primary, runoff or general election, although they are allowed to answer direct inquiries from constituents. A similar Senate prohibition lasts for 60 days.

But under the amended guidelines, House Members will now be able to send mass e-mails to constituents right up to Election Day.

“Our policy on the use of official resources should never stifle communication,” Ney said.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a committee member, said the change will allow Members to continue sending newsletters and other policy updates to constituents who sign up through Members’ Web sites. Ehlers said he received numerous inquiries before the 2002 elections, when his office ceased putting out a newsletter, and e-mail subscribers “couldn’t figure out why it stopped shortly before the action got the greatest.”

Led by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the panel’s ranking member, Democrats objected to the changes, but lost by a 5-3 voice vote along party lines. (New York GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds did not attend the hearing.)

“Why should e-mail be treated differently from all other forms of communication?” Larson asked.

The panel did not vote on five amendments offered by the Democrats that would have required the Franking Commission to review “subscribed e-mail update[s]”; required Members to make the e-mail letters publicly available; restricted e-mail letters for distribution only to residents of a Member’s district; limited the number of e-mail letters sent within a 90-day period before any special, primary, runoff or general election; or prohibited e-mail letters during that same period.

Larson and Rep. Juanita Millender- McDonald (D-Calif.) are concerned that the e-mail exemption could result in an unfair advantage for incumbent candidates.

“The e-mails can really be sent regardless of the subject matter or the content and could have some flavor of campaign materials,” Millender-McDonald said.

A 2000 Congressional Research Service report found Members do send out more mailings during election years: Congress spent $224.2 million on franked mail in election years from 1990 to 1999, but only $145.2 million in nonelection years during the same period.

But, the panel’s Republicans contended, many candidates now maintain Web sites and have the same abilities to send e-mail messages.

Larson also raised questions about the lack of any bipartisan review and whether some constituents may be inadvertently signing up for e-mail newsletters or other publications.

All e-mails will still be required to follow franking guidelines, even if they are no longer subject to review by the commission. Those guidelines restrict the use of franks to constituent mail relating to public issues, press releases, newsletters, questionnaires and other official business. The rules also limit the number of personal references a lawmaker can make to himself or herself, and restrict overtly political or partisan references.

“For the most part, Members are aware of what the standards are,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the House Administration panel, noting that mail dispatches which fall below the 500-copy mark are not currently subject to review.

Additionally, the proposed change would require Members to offer the option to opt out of receiving additional messages.

“This is solicited communication,” Walsh said. “This is responding to constituents who are requesting of their Representative that they be kept [up to date] on their Representative’s views and how they vote.”

If Members are found abusing the new process, it it likely the panel will revisit it in the future, Ehlers said. “You can’t write [the rules] in a way that you’re punishing the good folks … or the public who wants to know what we’re doing,” he said.