Imagine you are a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unless you’re an idiot, you want to be re-elected. It’s a cushy gig — it pays $174,000 a year. It’s likely you already have a net worth in the high six figures — nine times that of the your constituents — so you’re not hurting for coin of the realm. In debates, the moderator calls you “Congressman” and your opponent “Mister” or “Ms.”
People line up to give you the $1.3 million that you, on average, need to spend to get re-elected. How cool is that?
Re-election rates to the House are high — at or above 90 percent 18 times in the last 24 election cycles. But in 2010, when you washed ashore on the congressional beachhead in that tea-party wave of slash-government insolence, the re-election rate fell from 94 percent in 2008 to 85 percent.
Still great odds, but you’re a tad worried. Time to wield one of the best of all congressional perks: the frank. Therein lies the tale of why I will not vote to re-elect my freshman member of Congress, the honorable Rep. Tom Reed (NY-29). It’s not because he’s a Republican; Democrat members, friends on the Hill assure me, do what he did. What he did with his frank satisfies the letter of House rules — but not their intent. There’s a verb that describes this — weasel: to achieve something by use of cunning or deceit.
Franking, which dates back to the Continental Congress in 1775, allows members to send mail (within certain limits) through the U.S. Postal Service using just their signatures as stamps. Congress reimburses the postal service. That means taxpayers cover the postage. That means your constituent receives a letter in an envelope that whispers, “I’m from the government. This is important.” The return address: U.S. House of Representatives | Washington, DC 20515-3229 | Public Document | Official Business. And that solitary, powerful-looking signature instead of a stamp. That’s Rep. Tom Reed’s signature pictured on the envelope containing the letter he sent me dated Sept. 4.
That’s the power of the frank. The incumbent can send, without a stamp, a message carrying the imprimatur of the House of Representatives (“Official Business”) directly to constituents. The challenger cannot access that level of authoritative messaging. (Well, on TV, maybe, if he or she’s got serious dollars to spend.)
When I read Reed’s letter, I noted that the content seemed, well, like political advertising — not “Official Business.” (I’ll return to this later.) It had the odor of an “October Surprise,” a carefully crafted and perfectly timed message or event designed to unfairly influence the outcome of an election.
To be franked, members’ mailings must meet several requirements. These are spelled out in the franking manual of rules and regulations that proscribe certain actions or content in members’ use of the franking privilege. Franking is overseen by the Office of House Administration and the Franking Commission, comprised of three Democratic members and three Republican members. There are other rules as well, codified by the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards. So I studied the manual.
The blackout period: an attempt
to minimize unfair influence by incumbents
Did you know that the manual forbids franked mass mailings 90 days before a general election? I didn’t. That blackout period lasts from Aug. 9 until Nov. 6. Reed’s letter is dated Sept. 4. (The letter is reproduced at the bottom of this post.) Strike one.
Franked mail, says the manual, must contain, either on the letter or the envelope containing it, this phrase: “This letter was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.” Neither Reed’s letter nor the envelope contain that phrase. Strike two.
The franked letter must be a “mass mailing,” meaning at least 500 pieces. Reed’s Washington, D.C., office told me that the letter went to “several thousand” of his constituents. Strike three! Got ‘im! His letter violates the blackout period, right?
Well, not so fast, said Reed’s communications and media director, Timothy R. Kolpien, in an S&R interview. Kolpien said the office did indeed send thousands of pieces of franked mail — the letter I received. But, he said, under franking rules, a mass mailing must be at least 500 pieces each day. Reed’s office did not send thousands of letters on one day, as I’d assumed.
Reed’s office, Kolpien said, sent 499 pieces of mail a day for several days. So the letter was not a mass mailing: The letter of the franking law was obeyed; Reed’s letter did not violate the blackout period. Journalists operating in our “post-truth” era might call this weasel-like act politically savvy and marvel at it; I do not. I call it chicanery. It may be politically astute; it is not honorable. (Then again, this is Congress: You expect honor among those power-hungry thieves?)
So what did the letter say?
The content of Reed’s letter is troubling. Even though the letter did not violate the blackout period, it is still a piece of franked mail. It must adhere to content standards set forth in the franking manual.
Franked mail cannot contain overtly political material aimed at shaping constituents’ opinions. The content is, after all, labeled “Official Business.” From the franking manual: “Comments critical of policy or legislation should not be partisan, politicized or personalized.” [emphasis added] According to my interpretation of the franking rules, the content of Reed’s letter does all three.
First: Reed’s letter did not go to all of his constituents. His office told me that the letter was a “selective” mailing by age. Thus it went only to those constituents who, Reed’s office believed, by dint of their advancing age would be interested in Social Security or Medicare. (Apparently, his office believes younger people have no interest in either.) Presumably a franked mailing touting “Official Business” ought to go to all his constituents. Sending a franked mail to a demographic slice of his constituency is a political decision.
Second: In his letter, he repeats a favorite Republican screed about the Affordable Care Act:
Additionally, I remain very concerned about the impact of Medicare cuts from Obamacare. The most recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for the President’s healthcare bill. Given Medicare’s looming insolvency we cannot afford more money from the program to pay for Obamacare. Equally as concerning, Obamacare creates a panel of 15 unelected Washington, DC bureaucrats who are charged with the mission of determining what care seniors can receive and at what cost. [emphasis in original]
That’s mostly false. That content is partisan as well as overtly political.
Third: He mentions “Obamacare” three times. His letter personalized in a pejorative manner the president of the United States. Ironically, 10 months ago, in a Chicago Tribune story, the spokeswoman for the House administration committee warned against using that very word in franked mailings:
Lawmakers are not allowed to use partisan language or disparage a colleague or political party in their mailings. For example, you won’t find the word “Obamacare” in a taxpayer-paid mailing after Democratic objections, said Salley Wood, spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration. But other phrases, such as the “president’s health care plan,” pass muster, she said.
Well, so what? Why get so incensed over a damn letter?
Reed’s letter disparages the president and an act passed by Congress. But I doubt Reed’s just scum. He’s a politician. It’s more likely that he is just common: adopting traditional, usual, and scummy methods of leveraging incumbency to an unfair advantage. The ethos: Don’t break the rules. Bend them just shy of breakage.
Reed is among the congressional freshmen who rode onto the Hill determined to rein in government spending. But last year, in just nine months, those
GOP freshmen sent more than 25.6 million pieces of unsolicited mail last year at a cost of nearly $9.8 million, according to a review of records compiled by the chief administrative officer of the House.
The full House, in terms of franked mail:
House members sent out more than 77 million pieces of franked mail at a cost $27.9 million. That amounts to an average $63,000 for each of the 444 lawmakers who served at some point during the nine months.
As reported in Ledyard King’s USA Today story, Steve Elllis of Taxpayers for Common Sense says:
Clearly, this helps make the case that franking is really about protecting incumbency rather than informing their constituents about what’s going on in Washington. It should give some constituents pause about changing the way of Washington, about whether these freshmen are doing that.
In an interview with Scholars & Rogues, Steve Dutton, spokesman for the Franking Commission, explained franking oversight. All franked mail requires approval from the commission. That’s thousands of different mass mailings to vet. Yet the approval, he said, is contained in an advisory opinion. But doesn’t advisory really mean advice? Not approval or disapproval?
I asked if the commission fielded constituent complaints about franking abuses: “Is it dozens? Or hundreds?” Dutton: “It’s certainly not hundreds.” Perhaps that’s because the complaint process is daunting; courts have rejected suits because all administrative remedies had not been exhausted.
If the commission (again, a body of six, three Democrats, three Republicans, all House colleagues of Reed’s) actually finds Reed violated franking rules, what’s the penalty?
Probably not a goddamn thing. The most common penalty, Dutton said, is reimbursing the Treasury for the cost of postage. (But probably not the taxpayer for the preparation and publication of the mailing, I’ll bet.) Dutton said he did not know if any member had franking privileges revoked or how many complaints had been upheld.
Again, so what? To me, it’s clear Reed’s letter violated franking rules regarding content. Did it receive a review by the Franking Commission’s staff? Was the “advisory” positive? If negative, did his office just ignore it? Was this just lack of attention to detail by a few taxpayer-paid government employees? How often does that occur? To what degree is the content of Reed’s letter just business as usual?
I’ve spoken with current and former Hill staffers. (I won’t identify them; they have to work with these members, and I won’t put their jobs at risk.) The refrain from all: Everybody does it.
Reed is only one of more than 400 lawmakers who use franked mail. Are you really going to believe his letter is an aberration from the letters of the rest of the members who send mail at taxpayers’ expense under their signature? Hardly.
Reed sent me — and, again, a selective “several thousand” of his constituents — a self-serving, blatantly political letter that violates the letter and spirit of rules governing franked mail. Watch for franked mail from your own representatives in Congress. I’m betting some of you will find the content of those letters similarly violates the intent of Congress in delimiting appropriate use of franked mail.
Then again, my guy is the same representative who decided an evening swim in the Sea of Galilee while “appropriately clothed” was undertaken in innocence. As he said in a story in his local paper:
We’re never going to be dishonest with the folks of the district.
Bending the rules for franked mail seems dishonest and unethical to me.
So he won’t get my vote. His Democratic opponent, Nate Shinagawa, will. And if Shinagawa wins, I’ll watch his franked mail, too.
[Kudos to Kolpien and Dutton. They returned my calls same day, within two hours, and tolerated all my questions. In the D.C. world, that's light-speed responsiveness. Thank you.]
Reed’s Sept. 4 letter: