New Rules Limit House Committee Franking

Posted April 21, 2005 at 5:31pm

In an attempt to retard what one lawmaker described as a “deeply troubling” use of mass mailings, the House Administration Committee on Thursday approved guidelines that would limit committee spending on franked mail and apply new restrictions to the process.

Under the new regulations, committees would be authorized to spend no more than $5,000 per year on the taxpayer-funded mass mailings.

Additionally, restrictions that had previously governed only individual lawmakers would apply to committee mailings, including time-restrictions that prohibit the mass mailings — defined as more than 500 nearly identical pieces of unsolicited correspondence — within 90 days of an election.

Committee chairmen will also be required to receive the approval of the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards (commonly known as the Franking Commission) prior to issuing any mass mailings.

Before the panel approved the regulations in a unanimous voice vote, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) described the changes as “very responsible.”

Although individual lawmakers have long been required to abide by restrictions on the content and timing of communications, the franked mail process has been far less restrictive for House committees.

Under existing guidelines, a committee may send out mass mailings at any time, without regard to the election calendar, and to anyone, so long as the content relates to the “normal business of the committee,” according to the House Franking Manual.

Those relaxed rules sparked some debate in late 2004, when House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) authored and mailed to residents in Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming a flyer on the politically charged issue of snowmobiles in national parks.

Democrats have criticized the literature, which cost $68,000 in printing and postage, asserting Pombo violated franking rules by including partisan content, and two complaints filed with the Franking Commission — one from the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, the other from two Minnesota environmental lawyers — echoed those allegations.

The commission has yet to act on either complaint, in large part because House Democrats only recently appointed new members to the commission, but Pombo has publicly refuted the charges, asserting the mailing was entirely within bounds.

Although she did not refer to the mailing specifically, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), ranking member of House Administration, noted she found one committee mailing issued prior to the November 2004 election “deeply troubling.”

“If left unchecked … I believe the frank would be placed in jeopardy for the entire House,” Millender-McDonald said Thursday afternoon when introducing the amendment she co-authored with Ney.

The new regulations, included as an amendment to legislation funding House committees in the 109th Congress, must still be approved by the full chamber.

A committee aide said the new $5,000 limits are not expected to noticeably impact the committees mailing activities, adding that a majority of House panels spent less than that amount during the 108th Congress.

At a March hearing on committee funding for the 109th Congress, however, some panels leaders did request significantly more.

The Resources Committee requested $100,000 for franking over the two-year period, the same amount it received in the 108th Congress.

The Veterans’ Affairs Committee likewise requested $100,000, while both the Homeland Security and the Government Reform committees asked for $50,000.

Committees may still be granted additional funds in the 109th Congress, Ney said, but they will be required to return to the House Administration panel to explain their requests.