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Secrecy surrounds the use of 'franked mail' in Congress

Matt Churchill

Watchdog groups say upstate New York lawmakers, along with lawmakers nationwide, are blurring the line between their campaigns and official duties as representatives.

To see what lawmakers send voters with your tax dollars you have to go to the basement of a House office building. Photos are banned and only black and white copies leave the sparse room. The privilege of elected office is dubbed "franked mail," even though lawmakers now use it to buy Facebook, Twitter and Google ads. Lawmakers are alerted each time a reporter, researcher or political opponent asks to see what they’ve sent to voters. Why all the secrecy?

Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says it’s because there’s a thin line between official constituent services and campaigning.

“I think it’s complicated because we’re also in a permanent campaign," said Sloan. "So no one’s ever finished campaigning. And everything particularly a House member puts out is always geared toward persuading their constituents that they should be re-elected next cycle.”

New York Democratic Rep. Bill Owens disagrees. In this session of Congress, he spent more than $125,000 sending out physical mailings declaring such things as “Congressman Owens is ensuring that our border crossings remain secure...”

"I think the franked mail is important," said Owens. "We also have large sections of the district that do not have broadband. In the absence of broadband, Twitter, Facebook, etc., don’t work very well. If you can’t see it, it’s not very helpful.”

The Senate caps franked mail spending at $50,000 annually, so most don’t use the privilege because it’s hard to communicate to an entire state with just $50,000. But there’s no limit in the House.

From 1997 to 2008, House members, on average, spent just over $50,000 annually on postage. On top of traditional mail, Owens also spent more than $40,000 of taxpayer funds on electronic
communications, including invites to find him on Twitter and Facebook. He says it’s an important way to let his constituents know where he stands on issues.

“I live in a very rural place -- 16,500 square miles," said Owens. "It's very difficult to have face time with people.”

New York Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei spent close to $130,000, with $36,000 going to electronic communications this session. Republican Rep. Tom Reed spent more than $145,000 in that period He says it’s important to meet people on the platforms they read.

“If you’re going to represent people you got to listen to people," said Reed. And franked technology, like email, is cost effective. So I think you got to use all of the tools.”

Melanie Sloan says it’s important for the nation’s elected officials to communicate with people who put them in office. But she says a lot of what’s considered franked mail nowadays, like those Facebook and Google ad buys, isn’t what the nation’s first Congress intended when it adopted the practice.

“I’m not sure that they have been updated to take into account the burgeoning variety of ways members can connect with their constituents," said Sloan. "I think there are real questions about what is appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

Unlike many lawmakers, New York Republican Rep. Richard Hanna says Sloan and other critics have a point.
“I accept the criticism," said Hanna.

Hanna spent more than $80,000 using the privilege this session. But he says many of his constituents may not even know he’s now their representative, since he represents a district created in the last round of redistricting.

“Almost half the district is new to us," he said.

Lawmakers aren’t allowed to use taxpayer funds for mailings within 90 days of an election, so lawmakers were cut off from using the privilege in August. But if Sloan’s right, the campaign season started long before August, or never really ended, giving incumbents a leg up in this year’s contests.