Legislators’ mailing privileges called an unfair advantage

cowens@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2014 

  • Keeping in touch

    Corrected: The information below has been changed to correct the cost of Rep. Robert Pittenger’s mailing. The previous amount listed was too high.

    U.S. representatives can use taxpayer funds to send mail to their constituents, a process regulated and overseen by the bipartisan Franking Commission. Based on the latest available data, the following representatives did not send franked mail in this time period: David Price, D-Chapel Hill; Howard Coble, R-Greensboro; Mike McIntyre, D-Lumberton; Mark Meadows, R-Highlands; and Mel Watt, D-Charlotte.

    Here are the mass mailings distributed by USPS from October 2012 to the present:

    • Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson

    Total number distributed: 20,670

    Total cost: $5,874.30*

    • Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-Dunn

    Total number distributed: About 73,000

    Total cost: Unavailable

    • Rep. Walter Jones, R-Farmville

    Total number distributed: 191,326

    Total cost: Unavailable

    • Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Banner Elk

    Total number distributed: 126,481*

    Total cost: $56,262.09

    • Rep. Richard Hudson, R-Concord

    Total number distributed: 188,679

    Total cost: $80,039.29

    • Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-Charlotte

    Total number distributed: 40,187

    Total cost: 12,886.96

    • Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Hickory

    Total number distributed: 64,796

    Total cost: $31,283.27

    • Rep. George Holding, R-Raleigh

    Total number distributed: 74,402

    Total cost: $33,284.03

    *Not including mass mailings after Sept. 30, 2013

As this year’s congressional elections approach, challengers are questioning the politics of a regulated, fairly common activity: sending mail to constituents.

While all the Triangle area representatives make use of such mass mailings, called franking, only Republican Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn and Walter Jones of Farmville face primary challengers. And both have sent mailings the past month, raising complaints from their opponents.

Jones’ use of the frank has been attacked by Taylor Griffin, who wants to unseat the 10-term incumbent in the 3rd District. Griffin released a radio ad last weekcondemning Jones’ use of government funds for what he deemed campaign material after Jones’ Jan. 16 mailing.

Franking regulated

Franked material often includes newsletters, reports, questionnaires and updates on specific issues. The process is regulated and overseen by the bipartisan Franking Commission, which is part of the Committee on House Administration. The commission approves all forms of mass communication sent to constituents, electronic as well as print.

Members of Congress can, by law, send unsolicited mass mailings that are paid for with taxpayer dollars. All franked materials must comply with federal regulations and be approved by the commission before they are mailed. The regulations include a prohibition against partisan or campaign references. They also create a blackout period beginning 90 days before a primary or general election in which the lawmaker is a candidate.

Not everyone franks. Based on the most recently available data, five representatives did not send any franked mail over the past year, including Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from Greensboro, who has not done so since 1990.

Jones and Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from Concord, have been more prolific.

Hudson spent about $80,000 on two separate mailings to constituents since October 2012.

Rob Reid, a spokesman for Hudson, said the size of a mailing depends on several factors, including the content, the target audience and budget constraints. One of Hudson’s two mass mailings went to more than 170,000 constituents; the other went to only about 4,000.

Communication varies

Jones has sent mass mailings to 191,326 constituents since December – his first franked mail since 2010.

On Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, he sent a total of 95,663 mailers that focused on his work to create and protect jobs.

Another mailing, to the same number of constituents on Jan. 16, served as an annual legislative report, highlighting various activities of the congressman over the past year.

“We just wanted to take the opportunity and make sure the people of Eastern North Carolina know what the congressman is doing, how he’s voting and how he’s working for them,” said Sarah Howard, a spokeswoman for Jones.

Glen Downs, Jones’ chief of staff, said the congressional office varies its communication methods. Last year, he said, Jones put on multiple telephone town halls, a strategy frequently used by members of Congress in which people can listen in on discussions and ask questions.

Downs declined to comment on Griffin’s radio ads, but said that Jones’ mailers were not related to his campaign.

Griffin, however, disagrees.

“Anyone who objectively looks at this mailer will conclude that its purpose is to promote Walter Jones politically,” Griffin said in a statement released after Jones’ first mailer on jobs. “It is bad enough Jones would waste taxpayer money on mailers during these tough economic times, but to use those funds for political purposes is an outrage.”

Perks of incumbent

Ellmers, who is in her second term, has sent franked mail to her constituents in the past; the last was in the summer of 2012.

Ellmers’ most recent mailer went out last week. It gave a short description of her position on eight issues and included survey questions asking constituents what issues were most important to them and if they would like to receive more information about those issues.

Tom Doheny, Ellmers’ spokesman, said the mailer was sent to update constituents on her activity in light of the new year.

“We try to keep our constituents apprised of what’s going on in Washington without wasting taxpayer dollars. That is one of the most important parts of being a member of Congress: staying in touch with constituents ...,” Doheny said.

Although Ellmers did not send out a mailer last year, she used other methods such as teletown halls, social media and non mass mailers to connect with constituents, Doheny said. This year’s mailer was sent to about 73,000 households.

Frank Roche, who is running against Ellmers for the district Republican nomination, said she is using her franking privilege more than usual because of the “unexpected challenge” he presents her.

“Every incumbent has this power and it’s one of the difficulties of taking one on,” Roche said.

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