Elected officials' postal privileges

Tradition of franking allows lawmakers to reach voters on taxpayers' dime

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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With less than $5,000 in her campaign fund, you probably won't get any mail from congressional candidate Norma Stevens this election season. She's said it's too expensive for her to reach voters through mail.

"It is what it is, and I have limited resources," Stevens said. "They don't give you a break at the post office. … It really helps when you can put something in the mail."

Meanwhile, the lawmaker she's trying to unseat, 3rd District Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has been able to get her message out to thousands of potential voters using taxpayer money. State and federal lawmakers running for re-election can, within reason, use government money to send glossy mailers or newsletters to people in their districts.

At the federal level, it's a long-standing privilege called franking, which allows lawmakers to use their signature to send mail rather than paying postage. Rules on franking have evolved over the years as national leaders have tried to balance the need to communicate important information to the public with the need to keep elections fair for nonincumbent candidates, who can't send franked mail.

Today's restrictions on franking keep members of Congress from sending mass mail pieces to constituents 60 days before a primary or general election for senators and 90 days before a primary or general election for House members. At the state level, the law cracks down on the amount of information that can be mailed out in the year leading up to an election.

The franked mail sent by members of Congress must meet some standards in appearance and content. For example, if a photograph of a lawmaker is on the mailer, it can't be too large. The frank is intended for sending information about official business, so campaign information is not allowed.

Herrera Beutler spent about $190,000 to communicate with her district by mail this year. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell spent none of her budget on franked mail.

For House members, all franked mail is approved ahead of time by the Franking Commission, a subgroup of the Committee of House Administration. The commission consists of Democratic and Republican members of the House. Approval is needed for mail pieces that go out to more than 500 residents.

It's important for lawmakers to use a portion of their budget for updating the people living back home in their districts, said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, an independent nonprofit that advises Congress on matters of communication and management.

A report by the foundation that analyzed 2009 franking spending among new lawmakers found that first-term members of Congress spent an average of about 10 percent -- or $152,000 -- on franked mail and costs associated with producing and printing franked mail. That figure also includes money spent on photography, and radio and television communication.

Fitch said that when lawmakers mail updates to their constituents, they are in theory, "demonstrating transparency and accountability in government, and that's what we want our Congress to do. … They use part of their budget to communicate what they're doing. That's their job."

Questionnaires

Members of Congress are allowed to use the frank to send questionnaires to their constituents as a way to gather public opinion. In March, Herrera Beutler spent $31,500 to ask some Clark County residents about the proposed Columbia River Crossing project to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River. In April, she spent $37,000 to send a mail survey on Medicare to residents throughout her district.

At least one expert says the mail surveys sent out by Herrera Beutler's office could have done a better job of measuring public opinion in her district by phrasing the questions in a clearer and more objective manner. The surveys provide information to bias participants and fail to collect opinions from a diverse sample of the congresswoman's constituents, Washington State University Associate Professor Travis Ridout said after examining both mailers.

"There's a couple of problems -- well, more than a couple of problems," said Ridout, who teaches courses about politics, elections and research methods. "I would go so far as to say that news organizations shouldn't report the results because it's so flawed."

When it comes to the questions asked in Herrera Beutler's surveys, "There's a lot of priming going on," Ridout said, or "in other words, giving arguments for one answer but not arguments to support the other answer. … It seems to lead you toward one answer."

Also problematic, Ridout said, is that the surveys do not ask participants to provide any demographic data, including age, gender, ethnicity, education level or income level. Without that information, it is difficult to tell whether survey respondents are a true representation of Herrera Beutler's constituents, he said.

Another concern Ridout said he has is that the CRC questionnaire lumps some choices together. On the CRC flier, the poll’s options (plus a space for an “other” answer) are:

• I agree that Clark County residents should have a vote on whether to pay for light rail as part of this project.

• We should move ahead on a new bridge without a public vote. We should be willing to pay what it takes to expand light rail into Clark County.

• We don’t need a new bridge at all.

The second option in the survey includes two statements and those should be broken up, Ridout said.

“It’s a compound question,” he said. “That’s an unfair question.”

The Medicare survey she sent out uses “inflammatory” language, Ridout said. He specifically pointed out Herrera Beutler’s use of the term Medicare “rationing.”

The survey first mentions Herrera Beutler’s stance on the Independent Payment Advisory Board that was created through the 2010 health care reform law. It then asks which method is best to address Medicare costs during the next decade. The options in the survey (plus a space for an “other” answer) are:

• An appointed board should be empowered to make changes and cuts to Medicare.

• Any major changes to Medicare should be voted on by Congress before they can take effect.

• No action is needed to protect Medicare.

The CRC survey was sent to homes in which someone had voted since 2008. The Medicare survey was sent to households with at least one resident age 55 or older who has voted at least once since 2008.

"Those who contact our office to discuss Medicare tend to be seniors, so we sent this update to those in and near retirement," said Herrera Beutler's spokesman, Casey Bowman.

Ridout said there are many ways to collect public opinion information, including mail surveys, online polls and telephone surveys. He estimated that a scientifically reliable telephone poll with the same number of questions sent out on each of Herrera Beutler's mail surveys would have cost about $10,000.

To make sure it's a reliable measurement of public opinion, "you take a representative sample of the population," Ridout said. "Second, you don't prime them by giving them a bunch of information that's designed to lead them to one specific answer. Third, you ask fair, simple, unambiguous questions that don't combine things into one."

Mail sent from Herrera Beutler's office under the congressional franking privilege comes with a disclaimer near the return address: "This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at the taxpayer expense."

'Another tool'

Herrera Beutler uses informal surveys to gather political opinions from those living in her district, and the choices in her surveys are based on the comments she frequently hears from constituents on a particular topic, Bowman said. He added: "If respondents don't like the choices offered, they are given space to answer the questions in their own words. We read them all. … These resident mail surveys help Jaime find out what residents across Southwest Washington care about, and the feedback helps her fight for their priorities."

When Herrera Beutler released the survey results from her CRC mailer in April, she acknowledged it did not include a scientific poll, but claimed that her survey represented "the most extensive effort by an elected official to gauge Clark County residents' thoughts" about the issue of light rail on the proposed bridge. She also said it would be wrong to ignore what those survey respondents are saying just because the poll isn't scientific.

In addition to using her franking privilege, Herrera Beutler meets with constituents in person, hosts telephone town halls, holds meetings with community groups, and uses social media to measure the needs of the 3rd Congressional District.

Use of online social media tools, such as Facebook or Twitter, by lawmakers is a trend that appears to be growing, said Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation. Communicating across the World Wide Web is less expensive than using postal mail, which could save lawmakers on franking expenses, but for the time being, there is still a large population of voters that aren't Internet savvy.

The use of online technologies could lead to a more transparent government, Fitch said. For example, one member of Congress posts every vote he makes on his Facebook page, along with a couple-sentence explanation of his vote, Fitch said. Other members are tweeting about upcoming meetings.

Shifting from so-called snail mail to the Internet as a form of constituent outreach could become a financial necessity. In the last two years, members of Congress have cut their own budgets by 11.4 percent, Fitch said.

State mailing rules

At the state level, rules for mass mailings appear to be more strict. State law puts a freeze on some mail sent out by legislators, and that freeze begins Dec. 1 -- nearly a year before the election.

State lawmakers from Clark County get a budget of roughly $15,000 to $25,000 for constituent communication, including printing, postage and even the cost to conduct telephone town halls. In the House, that budget amount is based on the number of voters in each legislative district. In the Senate, all senators receive the same allotment, but the amount they get has shrunk during the past few years because of an emphasis on limited government spending.

Notable spenders when it came to constituent communication costs include Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who spent about $13,800 during the 2011-2012 House term, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who spent about $9,900 in the same two-year period. In the other chamber, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, spent about $61,500 during the 2009-12 term while Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, spent more than $37,000 during the same four-year term. (See the chart with this story to learn how much each lawmaker spent.)

The freeze on the mass mailing state legislators can send in the year leading up to an election still allows them to send some pieces of information to constituents. They can send out two newsletters about the legislative session that year; the first one must be sent out within the first 30 days of the start of the session while the second one can be sent out no later than 60 days following the end of the session.

The freeze also still allows them to reply by mail to constituents who contact them, and to send congratulatory mail to people in their district who make noteworthy accomplishments, such as an Eagle Scout award. When lawmakers are not up for re-election that year, they are only limited by their budget on how much mail they send out and when.

State legislators also can send email newsletters to constituents who ask to join the email list.

There are rules prohibiting campaign-related content from being posted to a state lawmaker's official legislative website, but it is within bounds for incumbent candidates to link to their official legislative website from their campaign website. State lawmakers also are allowed to mail their newsletters just to people who vote, the assumption being that voters have shown a greater interest in government affairs.

The newsletters are allowed to outline a lawmaker's accomplishments, but the lawmaker is prohibited from asking for your vote.

"With regards to (newsletter) content, you're allowed to say why you supported something, why you voted against it, your views on any issue that is a legislative issue or could be a legislative issue, and you're allowed to be partisan," said Mike O'Connell, attorney for the state's Legislative Ethics Board.

O'Connell added that it's important for legislators to have the resources to communicate with constituents because it prevents them from operating "out of the public eye." Legislators have senior staff members who know the mass mailing rules and attorneys on hand if they want to make sure the information they send in an election year is acceptable under the law, and the amount they spend can be requested by any citizen under the public record laws.

Name recognition

Meanwhile, political challengers who don't have the same name recognition as their incumbent opponents sometimes find themselves struggling to introduce themselves to voters.

Jim Gizzi, a Democratic candidate in the 17th District who is running against Harris, recently posted a fundraising plea on his Facebook page so he could afford to send out his own mailer. He hoped to send two mailers -- each one reaching 15,000 voters. The bill was $15,600 and he ended up raising enough for just one of the two mailers.

"That's quite a hill to climb," Gizzi said. His Facebook page echoed that sentiment: "Postal rates, while reasonable enough for one or two pieces, when you start to talk thousands, yikes!"

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523, stevie.mathieu@columbian.com, http://www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or http://www.twitter.com/col_politics.