From: The Daily Times
WASHINGTON — Rep. Frank Kratovil wants you to know he’s fighting “out-of-control spending” in Washington. And he’s using your tax dollars to send that message.
The Maryland Democrat sent unsolicited mailers to his 1st District constituents last year — about his ideas for cutting taxes, creating jobs, solving economic problems, reforming health care and protecting veterans’ benefits — at taxpayer expense, as almost all lawmakers do.
All told, Kratovil spent $320,679 last year on mailers, telephone town halls and automated calls to constituents, House documents show. He ranks 15th among House members for money spent on taxpayer-funded communications.
“I think it serves a valuable purpose,” Kratovil said. “It allows me to communicate with constituents on major issues affecting them.”
Such communications qualify for the congressional franking privilege, which allows lawmakers to relay official business to constituents at taxpayer expense. Lawmakers are not permitted to send campaign-related material using the frank, although the distinction can be subtle.
The privilege dates back to 1775 and is commonly used by lawmakers. House members spent more than $45 million in 2009 on taxpayer-funded mass mailings, phone calls and electronic messaging to tout their records to constituents, alert them to town hall meetings and seek feedback, a review of House documents shows.
The franking privilege is a powerful advantage for incumbents in their efforts to fight off challengers.
Republican state Sen. Andy Harris, who is running for Kratovil’s seat, would not rule out using the privilege if elected, but said he would avoid sending “full color, campaign-style brochures at taxpayer expense.”
“Do you need to communicate with constituents? Certainly,” he said. “But there’s nothing wrong with a black-and-white letter. In the day of websites and the Internet, you can probably do almost all your communications through that method.”
Individual House members count their franking expenditures in different ways, so the $45 million total may be even higher. The money paid for nearly 339 million mass communications sent by House members — an average of 770,000 per lawmaker — to residents of their districts.
# Eight of the Top 10 spenders in 2009 were freshmen, each of whom spent more than $400,000.
# Twenty-nine of 441 House members (435 voting and six nonvoting members) reported issuing no communications.
# Lawmakers spent the most money and sent the most communications during the fourth quarter (Oct. 1-Dec. 31). That may be partly because members want to share their views of the just-completed session and also because election-year limits on franking restrict their opportunity to communicate on a broad basis.
Kratovil’s franking total accounts for 884,557 mass communications with constituents. His staff determines the mailer topics based on questions from constituents.
There’s no limit on how much House members can spend on communication, though it must come out of the annual allowance they get to run their offices. Kratovil’s budget was $1.47 million last year. He said he didn’t spend about $97,000.
“I may have spent more (on franking) than some, but my guess is many did not return money to the Treasury,” Kratovil said.
Restrictions have been imposed on the franking privilege throughout the years to make mass mailings less promotional and more informational. Each communication must be reviewed and approved by a bipartisan commission before it can be issued. Even so, colorful mailers bragging about a representative’s accomplishments and reminding constituents how hard the member works for them are common, according to a review of several lawmakers’ franked pieces.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said they should be banned entirely in an election year.
“Content restrictions, while minimally helpful, really haven’t solved the ultimate problem, which is that mass communications can serve as very favorable publicity for incumbents that challengers have to pay money to counter,” he said.
Harris said an appropriate standard for franking would be to send mailings, newsletters and other material only to constituents who express interest in receiving them.
“I’ve gotten these mailings at my house,” Harris said of Kratovil’s mailers. “I certainly never asked for them, and I certainly think the taxpayers don’t expect their hard-earned dollars to be used for that kind of communication.”
Kratovil said such communications helped his office recover more than $600,000 owed to constituents in veterans’ benefits, Social Security payments and other money. He said the communications also alert constituents when laws change, advise them about services his office offers and solicit their opinions on major issues.
He said that in terms of political advantage, the franking privilege is only as powerful as the “chicken dinners and banquets” he attends.
“The bottom line is, as a member of Congress, it’s important to be able to communicate with constituents,” he said. “That’s why the privilege is there.”