Freshmen Making Quick Use of Mail

Posted June 29, 2007 at 5:29pm

As Members prepare to submit their latest reports on franked mail, a review of House disbursement records shows that nearly half of the 51 freshmen sent out mass mail in their districts in the first quarter of the 110th Congress, including a handful whose efforts rival those of seasoned lawmakers.

Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) sent the most mass-mail items of any freshman from January through March of this year with 202,445 individual pieces, while Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) led the freshman class in spending on mass mailings with $78,349 in total postage costs for 179,452 pieces. By comparison, 26 freshman Members sent out no mass-mail items in the first quarter, although all did record spending official funds on franking — which includes all official mail, not just mass mailings — according to House records.

Although sometimes criticized by outside groups as a Congressional perk — Members are allowed to use their office budget to pay for mailings, although guidelines limit the documents’ content and when items can be issued — many freshman offices contacted last week took pride in placing among the top mass-mail users for first-term Members.

“It shows that we’re trying to be very, very accessible and that we’re here to help and listen to their opinions on important issues,” said Matt Lahr, spokesman for Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who ranked 10th in mass-mail spending.

“We did one piece to everyone with information on how our office can be contacted. We hosted numerous public meetings and invited a lot of folks to those meetings. … Our office also established a very extensive constituent reply operation once it opened. We were sending letters out within two weeks,” Lahr said. [IMGCAP(1)]

Among the items Walberg has issued to date are several heavy-stock, full-color documents, such as a “legislative update” approved in mid-March that touted the Michigan lawmaker’s support for stricter House ethics rules, as well as legislation to allow states to ban the importation of Canadian trash; to give the White House line-item veto powers; and to promote ethanol. The mailing also includes a postcard for constituents to return with their contact information for topic-specific updates.

According to House guidelines, “mass mailings” covers any correspondence — for example, newsletters or meeting notices — with “substantially identical content” when more than 500 pieces are mailed in the same Congressional session.

All mass mailings must be reviewed by the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, commonly known as the franking commission, to ensure compliance with rules such as those that limit references to an individual Member or party status.

Although outnumbered almost three-to-one in the freshman class, Republican Members made up half of the top 10 when it came to mass-mail spending in the first quarter.

“I’m not surprised where we are at,” said Charles Isom, press secretary for Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), who ranked among the top 15 freshmen for mass mailing, issuing 130,536 pieces.

“A lot of districts don’t face the same hurdles we do. … We have such a huge Congressional district, it’s about 65,000 square miles, so direct-mail pieces are really a big part of our communication strategy,” Isom said.

He added that because of the new Congressional schedule, with five-day workweeks in Washington, D.C., Smith may not get back to Nebraska as much as his predecessor, former Rep. Tom Osborne (R).

“When he is back they’re usually these whirlwind grip-and-grin trips,” Isom said. “It takes four hours to drive halfway across the district and there’s not a whole lot of towns in between, so you can only be in a few places in a day.”

In March, the Nebraskan received approval on a multipage, full-color mailer touting, among other items, the lawmaker’s support for the farm bill reauthorization, as well as listing the office’s services, including military service academy nominations and procuring flags flown over the Capitol.

The office also has sent a series of smaller mailers, Isom said, mostly on agricultural issues.

A spokesman for Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) asserted his office issued a relatively high volume of mail, more than 111,000 pieces at a postage cost of $41,691, in an effort to introduce the freshman lawmaker, who replaced longtime Rep. Joel Hefley (R).

“We’re in a district that hasn’t seen a new Congressional Member in 20 years,” spokesman Chris Harvin said. “We’re trying to get our messages out, we’re trying to get our services out,”

The Coloradoan has worked with a consulting firm to create “an aggressive plan to reach out to the constituents” that includes mass mailings, as well as town hall meetings and teleconferences, and plans to use e-mail documents in the future.

While Lamborn’s office intends to maintain its saturation efforts, Harvin said there is no official budget governing the project. The House struck down spending limitations on mass mailings in 1998, freeing lawmakers to spend any portion of their official office budget on those costs.

“We’re not going to say, ‘We’re going to spend this much.’ We’re pretty fiscally conservative, but we’re going to spend it where we need it,” he added.

But if those high-spending lawmakers maintain similar spending levels on mass mailings in the next six months — second-quarter reports to the franking commission are not due until mid-July — it is possible they could end up among the most prolific users of mass mail, according to the National Taxpayers Union, which has often criticized the use of the Congressional frank.

“It’ll be interesting to see if ‘frank early and often’ becomes the freshman mantra,” said NTU spokesman Pete Sepp.

According to NTU statistics, the 50 most prolific mailers in the House issued at least 500,000 pieces of mass mail in 2005, the most recent year available for analysis, with three lawmakers exceeding the 1 million-item mark.

“It is far more typical to see fewer than half a million pieces being mailed,” Sepp said, adding that the average ranges from 200,000 to 300,000 pieces per year, with a majority of those items issued in the first or last quarters of each year, when Members often issue yearly updates or newsletters.

But Sepp questioned the explanations provided by some offices for their initial use of the frank in reaching out to their new districts.

“The people who would care about their Member of Congress would have voted in the election anyway,” Sepp said. “It’s pretty hard not to notice that a lawmaker’s been replaced with someone else, especially with mass media the way it is these days.”

He later added: “It’s almost as if they’re admitting they want to put themselves on the political map early so that constituents will start thinking of them two years before an election.”

Members have long defended the practice — which dates as far back as the American Continental Congress in 1775 — although the House has added limitations in recent years, including limiting mailings 90 days before primary and general elections and prohibiting mass mailings outside a Member’s own district in 1992 following a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that found that unconstitutional.

But many newly elected lawmakers also opted not to issue any mass-mail items during their initial three months in the House and posted minimal expenses for franking to individual constituents.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) sent out no mass mailings in the first quarter of this year and reported just $55 worth of total franked mail expenses. But that doesn’t mean that Ellison’s Minneapolis constituents never hear from the man they elected in November to replace longtime Rep. Martin Sabo (D).

“We wanted to wait and have something to tell them,” Ellison said of his decision to wait until after the first three months of his term to send out a mass mailing. “The reality is there’s a big starting-up process. People want to hear about policy, not that the office is up and running.”

But Ellison has been hosting regular community forums in the district since the beginning of the year, events that Communications Director Rick Jauert said have been well-attended despite the fact that the office had yet to send any mass-mail pieces.

“You don’t get 400 people to attend a forum on immigration reform without getting the word out,” Jauert said.

Mass-mail rules do not apply to items sent in direct response to a constituent inquiry, mailings to colleagues in Congress or other government officials, or to news releases.

For Ellison’s office, the communications strategy involves “a lot more community outreach than anything else,” Jauert said. “We don’t have distance as an issue whatsoever. We also have a pretty tightly knit communications operation and there are a finite number of news outlets so you can get the word out.”

At the same time, Ellison’s communications team is looking to rely more on e-mail and other electronic forms of communication.

“With technology what it is today … the traditional franking that has been a way of life [in Congress], I don’t think is the way to ultimately reach people,” Jauert said. “But it also depends on the demographics of your district. If you have a much older district demographically then I think it’s very smart to do franked mail because historically, senior citizens read mail and that’s their main way of communication.”

Earlier this year, House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) released a letter expressing concern that the new House leadership had not yet appointed Democrats to the franking commission.

“The House’s ability to monitor and enforce regulations on the appropriate use of resources for official communications will continue to be negatively impacted until the Franking Commission has been fully constituted, and we urge immediate action to prevent further harm,” Ehlers wrote in early April.

Ehlers said at the time that violations of franking commission regulations in the 110th Congress needed to be addressed.

“We have noticed a rise in unsolicited mass e-mail communications linking directly to websites that violate specific content prohibitions,” he wrote.

In June, House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) tapped Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano (Mass.) to chair the franking commission, which is expected to review those guidelines in coming months, including the use of e-mail in mass communications to constituents.