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Centuries-Old Benefit Lets U.S. Lawmakers Use Tax Dollars For Social Media

Carolyn Kaster, File /  AP
 

Carolyn Kaster, File / AP

Congressional watchdog groups say Sacramento-area lawmakers, like their counterparts around the country, are blurring the line between their campaigns and their official duties. 

The term "franking" refers to the application of a stamp on a piece of mail. With U.S. lawmakers their signature becomes their frank. The franking privilege was granted by the founding Congress at a time when lawmakers traveled for days to get home and had no other way to communicate with constituents.

Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says franked mail is important. 

"Of course constituents do need to be informed about the activities of their members of Congress here in Washington," says Sloan. 

Twenty-first century lawmakers are spending tax dollars on the franking privilege in very different ways. To see what lawmakers send voters now with your tax dollars you have to go to the basement of a House office building. Photos are banned and only black and white copies leave the sparse room. The 18th Century franked mail privilege allows lawmakers to buy Facebook, Twitter and Google ads in the 21st century.

Lawmakers are alerted each time a reporter, researcher or political opponent asks to see what’s been sent to voters. Why all the secrecy? Sloan says it’s because there’s a thin line between official constituent services and campaigning. 

"I think it’s complicated because we’re also in a permanent campaign," says Sloan. "So no one’s ever finished campaigning. And everything particularly a House member puts out is always geared toward persuading their constituents that they should be re-elected next cycle.”

But most lawmakers brush aside criticisms like that. Elk Grove Democratic Congressman Ami Bera spent $185,000 on traditional mass mailings this session. Many are printed on thick, color stock and include a code you can scan to connect with him online. One reads, “Representative Ami Bera is Making Congress Work for Sacramento County Families.” 

"The number one thing I hear from my constituents is that we really stay in contact with them and keep them up to date on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and back in the district," says Bera.

The Senate caps franked mail spending at $50,000, so most senators don’t use the privilege because that’s not enough money. But there’s no franking limit in the House. From 1997 to 2000, eight House members averaged just over $50,000 in annual spending on postage.

Besides snail mail, Bera has spent $95,000 on electronic communications, including ads inviting people to ‘like’ him on Facebook, emails with links to his TV appearances, robocalls, and electronic surveys – known to most of us as ‘polls.’  

"I think it’s the right thing to do, to communicate with your constituents, and this is a tool of communication," says Bera.

Of all lawmakers in the Sacramento area Fairfield Democrat John Garamendi spent the most on franked mail. He spent $330,000 using the privilege. He says he’ll communicate with constituents in the media they use most. 

"Oh, we communicate every way we can with our constituents: Facebook, Twitter and so forth. And that’s increasing," says Garamendi.

Critics say spending like this gives incumbents a leg up in congressional elections. Like most lawmakers, Garamendi says the $300,000 tax payer dollars he spent went to official business because it’s all approved by both Republican and Democratic congressional staffers. 

"Well, the campaign is completely separate – completely separate,” says Garamendi.

Remember that campaign slogan “Repeal and Replace Obamacare”? Oroville Republican Doug LaMalfa promised just that in an electronic newsletter to voters paid for with tax dollars. He’s spent just over $70,000 using the franking privilege.

“I haven’t really focused on an election until after we’re done these next two weeks and then after that I’ll focus on election stuff,” says LaMalfa.

Sloan, of the watchdog group CREW, says it’s important for elected officials to communicate with the people who put them in office. But she says a lot of what’s considered franked mail nowadays – like those Facebook and Google ad buys – isn’t what the nation’s first Congress intended when it adopted the practice.

“I’m not sure that they have been updated to take into account the burgeoning variety of ways members can connect with their constituents," says Sloan. "I think there are real questions about what is appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

Lawmakers aren’t allowed to use taxpayer funds for mailings within 90 days of an election, so lawmakers were cut off from using the franking privilege in August. But if Sloan’s right, the campaign season started long before August – or never really ended – giving incumbents a leg up in this year’s contests.