Committee Franking Under Fire

Mailing by Pombo’s Panel Is Part of Broader Trend

Posted April 1, 2005 at 6:14pm

A months-long dispute over whether House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) improperly used taxpayer money to send out partisan mail before the 2004 election has evolved into a broader debate over the use of franking privileges by Congressional committees.

At a recent hearing on committee funding for the 109th Congress, Democrats questioned Pombo’s request for $100,000 for franking expenses during the next two years, in light of a four-color mailer he sent out a month before the 2004 election touting the panel’s work on a hot-button issue. The 175,000-piece mass mailing went out to residents of four states, with 166,000 of them going to residents of two states hotly contested in the presidential election.

Pombo says he abided by franking rules to the letter, but Democrats on the panel, including ranking member Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), say they have doubts. They believe at the very least that the circular was dubious enough to make a case for reconsidering the franking rules.

When using the frank in their capacities as individual lawmakers, Members have to abide by restrictions on the content and timing of the communications, so that taxpayer-funded postage is not used to explicitly further their chances of re-election. Although lawmakers have often found ways around those rules — by sending out mass mailings in bundles of just under 500 when an election is less than 90 days away, for example — the use of the frank is far more restrictive for Members’ personal offices than it is for committees.

Committees may send out mass mailings at any time, and to anyone, so long as the content relates to “the normal business of the committee.” The committee handbook published by the House Administration panel explicitly states that mass mailings sent out by committee chairmen may be mailed “without regard” to cutoffs that limit other election-year mass mailings.

Historically, committees have sent out far less mail than Members’ personal offices. But that may be changing.

In their biennial budget submissions, many of the committee chairmen who paraded in front of the House Administration Committee earlier this month seeking funding for the 109th Congress requested substantial increases in their franking allocations. Pombo himself started that trend in the 108th Congress when he asked for a franked mail budget of $500,000 — of which he received $100,000, an 800 percent increase over the panel’s 107th Congress allocation. Pombo has asked for $100,000 again this year.

A number of other House panels have followed suit. Veterans’ Affairs has also asked for $100,000, a 400 percent increase over its allocation last Congress. Science has asked for $65,000, more than a 700 percent increase over two years prior. Both the Homeland Security and the Government Reform committees have requested $50,000 apiece.

“I think we kind of started a trend in that regard,” Resources spokesman Brian Kennedy said. “The Resources Committee under Chairman Pombo has really been the first to use that privilege extensively.”

Kennedy further explained that Pombo has sought to increase his franked mail budget as part of a larger effort to reach out to “under-represented” constituents, most of whom live in rural areas and who are directly affected by the work of the committee.

Resources ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) joined Pombo in defending the committee’s franking budget. Rahall said he was originally “neutral” on the franking request Pombo had submitted, but after speaking with the chairman he came to believe that the funding levels were justified.

In a move the West Virginia Democrat called “unprecedented,” Pombo agreed to give the minority control over one-third of the panel’s mail budget. Absent such an agreement, the chairman controls the entire franking budget and sets the tone and issue agenda for the what kind of mass mailings are sent.

The National Taxpayers Union, an anti-tax group that has railed against what it sees as prolific abuse of the Congressional frank, thinks “the last thing taxpayers need is a golden handshake between Republicans and Democrats to simply split up a committee franking pot,” according to NTU spokesman Pete Sepp. “It’s the 180 degree wrong answer to this problem.”

Indeed, postage for franked mail by committees has increased markedly in recent years. (The printing costs are accounted for separately and are not itemized in the House’s disbursement books, where annual franking costs are reported.)

In 2002, House committees collectively spent $38,000 on the postage. In 2004, that figure rose to $104,000. Notably, the numbers are considerably lower in nonelection years. In 2003, the House only spent a total of $22,000 on committee franking expenditures. In 2001, that number was $34,000.

Last year, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) solicited the support of the NTU in his effort to restrict committee franking budgets to $25,000 per year. Although Sherman’s proposal didn’t move forward, the taxpayer’s group believed it should be just a first step to severely curtail the use of the frank.

The NTU has consistently criticized individual lawmakers’ use of the frank as an incumbency protection program. But Sepp thinks that the use by committees is even worse.

“The practice, which is hardly justified under personal offices, becomes even more odious when it is conducted by committees,” which have less of a pretense for heightened constituent communications, Sepp added.

The Pombo mailing, sent out last October to residents of Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming, highlighted the politically charged issue of snowmobiles in national parks. Sepp describes it as an egregious but not uncharacteristic example of the use of the frank.

The glossy flyer, which cost $68,000 in printing and postage, tells readers they “can rest assured that the House Resources Committee and the Bush Administration are working together to protect your right to ride.”

Less than a month before the election, Bush’s name was mentioned five times. There is no reference in the mailing to an upcoming hearing or soon-to-be-voted-on legislation. Instead, the “Resources Committee Update” references a February 2004 federal district judge’s ruling on the issue and unspecified work by the panel “to defeat an amendment that would have imposed a new ban in Yellowstone” National Park.

Alongside action shots of snowmobilers, the flyer touts Pombo’s work against a late- 1990s Clinton administration ban on their use on public land and touts the committee’s “common sense” approach to the issue.

“I hope you find this update on our work useful,” Pombo wrote.

The mailing provoked two separate complaints to the Franking Commission, an internal governing body within the House. Both complaints — one by the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen and the other by two environmental lawyers from Minnesota — assert that Pombo’s mass mailing contained partisan content, which would be a violation of the franking rules.

However, no action has been taken to date, in large part because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yet to name her picks to the bipartisan commission, preventing it from organizing this Congress.

In an interview, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said he believes the Franking Commission will dismiss the complaint against Pombo as soon as it formally meets. The minority staff is working on drafting alternative findings, concluding that the mailing was neither the “normal” nor the “regular business” of the committee and thus violated the rules.

Pombo, for his part, asserted at the hearing that “there is nothing in the mailer that is political. And it was all within the law.”

He added that if “someone wants to suggest that franked mail in the future be only about informing constituents of upcoming town hall meetings or hearings, I think other Members of Congress would be very concerned,” since most franked mail are “informational pieces.”

Republicans involved have accused Democrats of playing a game of “gotcha,” noting that, perhaps by design, the only two reporters in the room were from Pombo’s home state of California. “It was obviously a total set-up,” Resources’ Kennedy said.

Regardless of how the issue arose — and by all indications it has soured already strained relations between the majority and minority on the House Administration panel this Congress — the committee’s ranking member seems as much interested in securing the minority party’s access to franking privileges as hindering what they believe to be the majority’s misuse of taxpayer funds.

“We need to review the rules to make sure there is a fairness when it comes to mass mailings,” said Millender-McDonald. “If we are going to be fair and equitable, then the ranking member should be able to send” out mass correspondence as well.

What she seeks, she said, is “balance and equity.”