By Maddie Eldridge
There’s a lot that $63,000 can buy: a year’s worth of tuition, fees, and related expenses at Harvard; three years of healthcare costs for an average family of four; a brand new 2012 BMW Z4 Roadster with an automatic transmission and a turbocharged inline-six; or, if you’re a member of the House of Representatives, nine month’s worth of unsolicited mail.
Members of Congress enjoy a benefit known as the franking privilege, which allows them to send mail to their constituents free of charge. This money comes from the near-bankrupt U.S. Postal Service, which in turn passes the cost on to taxpayers. Since its inception in the 18th century, the congressional franking privilege has spawned widespread criticism. Its detractors have long-argued that the privilege imposes a high cost on taxpayers, is susceptible to abuse, and undermines the democratic process by giving congressional incumbents an unfair advantage over their challengers.
Although lawmakers are expressly forbidden from using the franking privilege to mail non-informational materials to their constituents, they have found various means of circumventing this restriction. Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, told Bloomberg in a July 5, 2012 article, “Very, very rarely have I seen franked mail that’s just information to constituents about what Congress is doing.” Unsurprisingly, members of Congress typically make copious use of the frank during election years. For example, a March 30, 2012 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report points out that Congress spent $36.3 million on franked mail in FY 2010, prior to the 2010 midterm elections.
Ironically, several House GOP freshmen who campaigned heavily against government waste and excess have racked up some of the highest mailing bills through their use of the franking privilege. A June 19, 2012Roll Call article reported that eight of the ten House members who spent the most on franked mail between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012 were Republicans. Four of these Republicans are freshmen who specifically criticized their incumbent competitors for using (and, in some cases, allegedly abusing) the franking privilege. Representatives Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), Joe Heck (R-Nev.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), and Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) spent a combined $1.36 million on franked mail between April 2011 and March 2012.
Meanwhile, three of the top ten franking privilege users, Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), and David McKinley (R-W.Va.) are members of the fiscally conservative Tea Party caucus. It should be noted that Republicans picked up the overwhelming majority of freshmen seats in the 2010 midterm elections and the House freshmen have historically made greater use of the congressional frank than their incumbent colleagues. Still, given that these freshmen ran on platforms touting their credentials as responsible stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar, these numbers still open them up to charges of hypocrisy.
Despite the many legitimate criticisms of congressional franking, proponents of the privilege often counter that congressional communication with constituents is a necessary component of any vital democracy. However, when it comes to unsolicited mail, the costs of the franking privilege outweigh its benefits. This is especially true in light of modern technological advances. Members of Congress have at their fingertips a plethora of technologies that readily facilitate low-cost communication. To quote the CRS report, “telephone, radio, television, and the Internet have expanded the mediums by which Members can communicate with their constituencies.”
Congress’ ability to send unsolicited mail on the public’s dime is an anachronistic policy that lends itself to corruption and provides for incumbent politicians an unfair electoral advantage. The policy also imposes a sizeable and unnecessary fiscal burden on taxpayers. Congress can take steps toward rooting out corruption, preserving the integrity of the democratic process, and saving public money by reforming the franking privilege.
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