Being a member of Congress carries special perks--an excellent healthcare plan, generous pensions, the use of the Capitol gym, even the use of reserved parking areas at Reagan and Dulles airports. Another benefit of being a member is the freedom to send mail to constituents on the government dime, known as the "franking privilege." While the privilege is intended to "assist and expedite" a member in conducting "official business, activities, and duties," data from the House of Representatives suggests that members may be using taxpayer dollars to supplement their campaign spending in advance of elections.
The data suggests that incumbents facing tough reelection campaigns use their franking budgets to as full advantage as possible, while retiring members opt to use their money elsewhere. In 2010, House members spent an average of just under $104,000 on mass mailings, but there was a broad range spent, which correlates with a member's election outcome. Thirty-nine of 54 defeated incumbents spent above that average amount, with defeated members altogether spending an average of $170,000. Representatives retiring at the end of the term, meanwhile, spent an average of only $26,000. All 19 retiring members spent below average on mass-mail franking in 2010, including seven who reported spending nothing.
House members' spending on official mail comes out of their larger "member representational allowances," which are used for official business including staffing and office equipment. Members' unique allowances are in part dependent upon their districts' distance from Washington, current postage rates, and the number of addresses within a district. The average allowance for 2010 was just over $1.5 million, and members can allocate their allowances as they see fit.
Strict rules govern the practice of franking to ensure that it is used only for carrying out official duties and not campaigning. Chief among these is the pre-election "blackout period": for 90 days prior to a member's primary or general election, that member may not frank any mass mailings. All franked mass mailings--that is, mailings of 500 pieces or greater--also must receive approval from the six-member bipartisan Franking Commission.
Still, it appears that members try to work around these rules. A 2008 Congressional Research Service study shows that the number of mass-mailed pieces spikes in the second and third quarters of election years, just before blackout periods. Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for reduced government spending, also points out that members can strategically target their mailings for political gain. "Franked mail cannot be sent or addressed with regard to voter preference," says Sepp, "but you can purchase lists that allow you to target in other ways," such as areas or demographics with which a member is not polling well. "The political dimension to the franking privilege is just too difficult to eradicate by a set of rules or election windows," he adds.
The content of franked mass mail can of course vary greatly. Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who was among 2010's top spenders with $349,000 in mass mailings, sends out an annual mailing listing basic constituent services, according to spokesman George Burke. "We have a very educated electorate," adds Burke, who says that Connolly's communication is "a function of responding to [that] active electorate." But franked mail can edge near campaigning territory; many such mailings tout members' accomplishments or advocate particular policy positions.
While the total amount that members of Congress spend on mail is a miniscule portion of total government spending, a member's franking expenditures can be significant relative to the cost of a typical congressional campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign money watchdog ,the average 2010 House candidate spent $567,708 on reelection. That means that, when representatives spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on constituent outreach, such as former Rep. John Adler's $487,000 or Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan's nearly $414,000, they may also be buying significant voter recognition advantages over to their challengers.