Franking Resumes, for Now

Posted October 1, 2007 at 6:48pm

Angered by what Republicans assert are inconsistent applications of House rules governing taxpayer-funded mail, GOP aides temporarily shut down the normally bipartisan approval process late last week, preventing Members on both sides from issuing mass mailings to their constituents.

According to both Democratic and Republican aides familiar with the situation, a staff-level meeting of the House franking commission Monday afternoon resolved the issue, at least for now, and staff began to move some backlogged requests that afternoon.

“Franking [was] on strike,” acknowledged Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.). “Until this afternoon the staff had ceased approval on any advisory request.”

The Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, as it formally is called, is responsible for reviewing any mass mailing of more than 500 pieces issued by an individual Member or committee office, as well as the review of automated-messaging calls and mass e-mails. Its purview includes regulating minute details of such communications, from the size of photos of a lawmaker to the number of times each party can be mentioned in a document.

According to Collins, Republican aides charged with screening such requests had become increasingly frustrated over “inconsistent interpretations by the majority” on long-standing guidelines on mailings and related issues. In particular, GOP aides complained that some mailings were returned on multiple occasions with repeated requests for additional changes or documentation.

“A lot of Member offices and/or committees are being forced to wait over a week for something that should take a matter of days,” Collins asserted. In combination with staff frustrations, those complaints prompted GOP aides to halt the review of any items on Wednesday of last week. That move effectively shut down the advisory process since both the minority and majority must approve all requests.

In rare instances, the full commission may vote on a submitted mailing or advisory requests; however, the majority of submissions are approved solely by commission staff.

“Members on our side feel like there’s no rhyme or reason on the rejections to franked mail they want to send out,” said one senior Republican aide, who requested anonymity. According to the aide, the panel’s senior Members have discussed the issue, but problems have persisted at the staff level.

When several GOP offices submitted documents to the commission last week, the requests were met with an e-mail citing the suspended operations, and stating: “The Majority Staff have refused to reply to some requests from Republican offices which have precluded us from processing Republican requests. As a result, we are reviewing submitted jobs, but are incapable at completing the process at this time. We are working to resolve this situation as soon as possible.”

A spokesman for House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) brushed off Republican complaints, asserting that the Democratic majority has applied the rules evenly to all requests submitted to the commission.

“The requirements and paperwork and everything else were the same as our folks have been asked to submit,” spokesman Kyle Anderson said. “There’s consistency in … how those terms are applied across the board.”

One Democratic source, who asked not to be identified, similarly asserted that rules have been enforced in the 110th Congress much the same as they have been in recent years.

“They’re just chafing being under the minority, when the majority is just following the rules and being fair to both sides,” the source said.

Although no meetings of the franking commission are currently planned, Collins said there will be a series of staff-level meetings “to improve the process.”

Any permanent changes to the regulations governing the franking process — listed in a 72-page handbook and aimed at curbing abuses of the taxpayer-funded mail — would need to be approved by the commission but would not require approval by the full House.

In the meantime, the franking commission, which typically receives 120 to 150 advisory requests each week, returned to its normal duties Monday, Anderson said, citing the delivery of a packet of GOP requests to Democratic staff.

How long it will take to clear the backlog of requests is not known, aides said. But offices will not be required to resubmit their requests.

“Our folks have been continuing to process Democratic mail, so it depends on how much mail they’ve been holding on their end and how long it takes to process ours,” Anderson said. “Our staff is going to do everything necessary to make sure it’s expedited.”

But it may be too late for some offices, including one House office, which asked not to be identified, that said it would cancel a mass e-mail it had planned to send out last week.