About Me

My photo
Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Congressman Dent's Franking Privilege: Unfair Advantage or Constituent Outreach?

He first did it two years ago. Now he's done it again.

Throughout the Lehigh Valley, mailboxes are being stuffed with a six-page report on our energy policy, something that weighs heavily on everyone's minds. We're paying for this information, which comes to us courtesy of Congressman Charlie Dent.

Congressmen have franking privileges. We pay for most of their mail. Charlie's "Energy Update" is actually a very informative newsletter about nuclear energy, ANWR, alternative and renewable energy and conservation. It even includes energy savings tips. It only contains one picture of Dent.

But Congressman Dent is in the midst of a reelection battle. Should taxpayer funds be spent on something that may inform, but will also increase his name recognition?

Incumbents have many advantages. If they call a news conference, the papers come running, something they don't usually do for challengers. Is this franking privilege an unfair advantage? What are the rules?

"Informational" mailers are banned 90 days prior to an election. They need advance approval from a bipartisan Congressional committee. The size of a representative's photo and the number of times his or her name is mentioned, is monitored. The mail may not be targeted, i.e. sent to "super voters" or a particular party. The only specifics that may be used are geographical area (based on zip codes), age (senior issue mailers wouldn't be sent to someone in their twenties) and gender (specific issues like women's health concerns would be an example).

Even with all these restrictions, congressional mailers are often little more thinly-disguised campaign ads. Expensive ones, too. Last year, a nonelection year, U.S. House members still spent $20.3 million in what often amounts to taxpayer-financed junk mail.

When Democrats seized control of Congress two years ago, I had hoped they might change this practice. Congressman Grant Bosse, a New Hampshire Republican, has proposed (1) a ban on unsolicited mass mailings, and (2) disclosing the cost of all other mass mailings on the literature itself.

Bosse's bill may prevent House members from using taxpayer funds to campaign. But it also limits valuable information many constituents need to judge an incumbent's record. It also ignores the reality that the Franking Commission's rules are outdated and need to be overhauled completely. Speaker Pelosi, for example, tells House Minority Leader Boehner, "I have a blog, use YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Digg... to communicate with constituents, and I believe they are vital tools toward increasing transparency... accountability."

She's right. New rules, whatever they may be, should increase accountability and transparency. The best way to insure this is by allowing challengers the same franking privileges as incumbents so long as all are regulated in the same fashion.
Correction: Grant Bosse may be a New Hampshire Republican, but he's not a member of Congress. Not yet. Like Bennett, he is a challenger. I apologize for the error.


Anonymous said...

If Reichly (sp?) and Harhart can do it, why not Charlie? Perhaps he can get into the echelon they occupy - the worst abusers in the State.

Anonymous said...

This privledge is from the ground up and always has been. What comes immediatley to mind is the 11 X 14 glossy 4 page Drug task force up date that was a thinly disguised campaign Ad for Paula Roscioli when she ran for judge. It was a drug task force update at txxpayer expense sent out by her boss John Morganelli. Elected offcials have been doing it since Gutenberg invented the press and challangers have been howling about it as long.

Is Ms Bennett willing to sign an oath to never ever send out literature to constituents from her office if she is elected? I don't think so. after all she has been living very nicely off taxpayer money under the guise of neighborhood improvement for a few years now.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this basically the same thing Mornganelli was complaining about except Corbett used a radio ad?

no so casual observer - Many quality people work for the taxpayers using taxpayer money. Many of them sacrifice their own income potential to do so.

Anonymous said...

It's a cheap trick! Campaign finance reform would be a nice first step to rid the land of this tax payer grab! They all should be ashamed for continuing to do this! No morals at all in politics and we let it happen and do nothing to stop it! Thieves in suits!

Anonymous said...

The money wasted on political campaigns would solve a lot of this countries and the worlds problems..hunger..medical needs..disasters..the list goes on and on and yet we squander our fortunes away on this !

Bernie O'Hare said...

Dave, I was with you two years ago, but how else can a congressman reach out to his constituents? There is a positive aspect to these informational mailers.

Harhart & Reichley are state PSAs. Roscioli was drug forfeiture money, which is still public funds. These are different creaturess w/ different regulatory bodies.

I think Congressmen should have the right to reach their constituents w/ information. In many cases, it's the only way for people w/o PCs to find out what is going on. Newspapers do not cover local congressmen that heavily, especially in urban areas. Many seniors and low income people do not have PCs. Without this information, they are cut off.

So I'd revise the antiquated franking commission regulations with the idea of increasing transparency everywhere. The amount that each mailing cost should be calculated and affixed to each mailing.

Also, in an election cycle, the opponent should have the same opportunity to contact voters as the congressperson.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that this is a constituent service that should be accessable to congress, state reps, or state senators.

I see a pattern here though and this mail outreach piece seems to fit a larger plan...

Dent has been calling houses inviting people to telephone town hall meetings to talk about energy. His Karl Rove (aka Sean M) has been calling his opponent $7.00 a gallon Sam and then this piece appears.

If Dent did this mail (even though it does not mention his name too much) on any other topic it would not have me upset. However this is an unfair advantaged disguised as constituent outreach.

When Dent was in the PA State House and Senate I wonder if he was in the echelon of worst abusers like the two mentioned by Rawn Hangul? That might be an interesting research project.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:24, You're right. For that reason, I'd give franking privileges to candidates as well.

Thanks to Charlie's energy upodate, I know he supports environmentally safe drilling in ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf. He supports expanding alternative and renewable energy. He wants to expand public transportation. he also supports nuclear power.

Some of the questions being asked for Charlie's interview tomorrow are already answered.

I think it's important we all know where he stands. But bc of the danger of politicizing this stuff at election time, I'd permit his opponent the same bite at the apple.

Now I don't in my wildest dreams think this will ever happen, but there it is.

Anonymous said...

Bernie -

I'd go in the opposite direction and eliminate the franking privilege entirely.

I am not certain how far the franking privilege goes back, but I have a feeling that it is probably a dinosaur left over from when the post office was the only means of real communication.

Today we have computers, and even those who do not have computers surely have telephones if they need to get in touch with their representatives (or the representative's office).

I also wonder how much of the mail is looked at as "junk mail" by the recipients and thrown away immediately. Imagine the trees that might be saved if it actually cost the office-holder something to send it out.

As to other ways that our congress-people can reach out to their constituents, maybe if franking were eliminated it would force our representatives to spend more time in their districts. Charlie Dent is pretty good with this, but I'm sure others are not.

Eliminating franking might therefore cut the number of days congress is in session so our representatives have more time in their districts (and less time to do damage to us). That might be a good thing.

Bottom line - if our elected officials (and candidates) still choose to reach out to people by mail, let them pay for it.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'd be with you except for the reality that seniors and low income people have no access to the web. That is the direction, though.

Anonymous said...

All franking should be eliminated. It's campaign junkmail plain and simple. It's a marked advantage that contributes to a re-election rate that is consistently in the 90+% range. I'm not a Bob Freeman fan, but if memory serves, I think the guy forgoes franking - and his districts survives (although not without occasionally ducking Easton's gang war gunfire). Franking No!