Lawmakers intent on dictating how the U.S. Postal Service cuts billions from its spending are among those helping themselves to a favorite congressional perk: free mail.
U.S. House members sent more than $45 million worth of such mail in 2010 and 2011 even while switching much of their communication to e-mail in recent years. Three of the 10 largest users last year were Republican members of the Tea Party caucus, which advocates for less government spending, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from House reports.
The Postal Service, which has more employees than any U.S.- based publicly traded company other than Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT:US), lost $3.2 billion in the quarter ended March 31 and has said it expects to temporarily run out of cash in October. It has asked Congress to let it make changes, including slowing required payments for future retirees’ health benefits.
“There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy, but then again, when you’re the head of the plantation, you can pretty much do what you want,” said Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, whose members include Williams- Sonoma Inc. (WSM:US) and Publishers Clearing House LLC. “Obviously they should be leading by example. Instead, they do quite the opposite.”
The privilege known as franking, dating to the Continental Congress in 1775, allows lawmakers to send mail to constituents at no cost using their signatures. Franking doesn’t deprive the Postal Service, which reported $65.7 billion in revenue in its 2011 fiscal year, of income. It does cost U.S. taxpayers who reimburse the Postal Service at rates similar to those paid by other bulk mailers.
Of the top 50 frankers by spending, 38 -- or 76 percent -- are Republicans, who are 56 percent of House members. Franking typically is used more in election years; for example, House members spent $34.1 million in 2010 and $11.3 million in 2011, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
The top franker, Representative Joe Heck, is a first-term Nevada Republican elected with the support of Tea Party voters. Heck sent mass mailings worth $430,680 from the beginning of 2011 through March 31, 14.2 percent more than the next largest franker, according to House records. He sent letters about Medicare, the national debt and balancing the budget.
Heck, through spokesman Greg Lemon, declined multiple requests to comment.
Heck’s re-election race in November is rated a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report newsletter.
“This is something that lawmakers have been using and abusing for a long time,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that advocates more efficient government spending. “It’s one of several different incumbency-protection rackets that they’ve got going on. They can send some periodic updates to their constituents that, even though they’re approved by a committee, are pretty thinly veiled campaign materials.”
While senators can send franked mail, their rules give them less to spend than House members. The Senate spent $1.5 million in 2011, according to the CRS report.
The second-largest franker since 2011, Representative Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican, asked constituents in a September online poll whether they’d support a Postal Service “bailout.” He spoke in favor of keeping a mail-processing plant that the Postal Service tried to close to cut costs and decided last year to keep open.
Buchanan, whom the Cook report doesn’t expect to face a serious re-election challenge, has sent franked newsletters with surveys about gun rights and veterans’ issues. He sent $377,111 worth of mass mail from the beginning of 2011 through March 31, according to House records.
“Staying in touch” is a priority of the third-term lawmaker, Max Goodman, a spokesman, said. “A big reason why Washington is broken is that too many aren’t listening.”
The Postal Service, an independent U.S. agency since 1971, doesn’t get direct taxpayer support and is supposed to be self- sustaining.
“Franking from our perspective is good because it puts mail in the system and it gives the House and Senate an opportunity to reach out to constituents,” U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in an interview.
The franking totals include costs for mail from individual offices, congressional committees and leadership offices. House members and delegates sent an average of $25,682 per person last year and $77,500 the year before.
Nine of the top 10 frankers have been in Congress for less than a decade. The other, Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, is a 16-year House veteran.
“The fact that Congress still sends out so much unsolicited mail must mean that it’s motivated for some reason,” National Taxpayers Union Executive Vice President Pete Sepp, a critic of franking, said. “Cynical taxpayers would say that it involves self-promotion.”
Sherman and Representative Howard Berman, another California Democrat who’s finishing his 15th term, were put into the same congressional district and are running against each other this year.
Berman and Sherman spent $5.5 million combined through May 16, making their race the nation’s most expensive pitting one incumbent against another, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks campaign spending.
Sherman said he uses franked mailings to let constituents know about the 160 town-hall meetings he’s had during his tenure.
“It’s important for everyone in my district to know they could come to a town hall,” Sherman said in an interview, noting Los Angeles-area media don’t cover town-hall meetings. “Knowing that their member of Congress is that accessible is a critical service I provide.”
Berman primarily sends calendars bearing his signature and pictures of Washington to constituents at the end of the year, Adam Sharon, a spokesman, said.
“Howard’s constituents enjoy receiving responses to policy concerns from their congressman, invitation letters to community meetings he hosts, or U.S. Historical Society calendars sent at year’s end,” Sharon said. “These are not glossy or self- promotional campaign-style mailers sent as franked mail.”
Franking’s history includes abuses such as a committee chairman sending mail to districts far from his own. In 1996, Illinois Representative Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges stemming from an investigation into misuse of House mailing privileges and was sentenced to 19 months in prison.
Not all lawmakers frank. Those who spent nothing during this session of Congress include Democratic and Republican leaders, some retiring members and Representative Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican.
“I don’t do it,” LaTourette said in an interview, saying he criticized his first opponent for his House seat in 1994 for abusing the frank. “I think it would be hypocritical for me to do it while having campaigned against it.”
Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the Postal Service and a member of the Tea Party Caucus, sent $69,772 of franked mail in the past five quarters, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Ross is a sponsor, along with Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, of a postal measure that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said will be considered between this month. The measure would put the Postal Service under a control board if it defaults on payments to the U.S. government, allow it to cut Saturday delivery and create a commission to decide which facilities to close.
Ross’s unsolicited mass mailings rank 212th among House members, almost at the median.
“Over the last two years, congressional office budgets have been cut by 11 percent in real dollars,” Fredrick Piccolo, a Ross spokesman, said.
Franked mail ranges from calendars bearing lawmakers’ names and images of the U.S. Capitol to mailings targeted at groups of constituents opposing gun-control legislation or interested in job fairs.
House members can’t send franked mail in the 90 days before elections. They’re instructed to have no more than one picture of themselves alone in a mailed piece and aren’t supposed to reference themselves more than an average of eight times per page.
The pieces provide the name recognition that helps drive votes, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen in Washington.
“Franked mail tends to be praising of the member of Congress, perhaps even the political party that they work for,” Holman said. “This is campaign material. Very, very rarely have I seen franked mail that’s just information to constituents about what Congress is doing.”
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