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Taxpayer-funded mail gives lawmakers direct line to constituents

Rep. Mary Fallins latest mass mailing from her congressional office may look like a campaign brochure, but its "official” business Congressional mail gives lawmakers taxpayer-funded "tool.”

BY CHRIS CASTEEL Published: May 16, 2010
WASHINGTON — In the last two weeks, 75,000 residents in Rep. Mary Fallin’s congressional district got a two-page letter with her "guiding principles for prosperity” and the phrase, "Doing What’s Right for Oklahoma.”

Though Fallin, R-Oklahoma City, is running for governor, the letter wasn’t sent by or funded by her campaign.

The $26,000 cost of the mailing was borne by U.S. taxpayers as part of the franking privilege that federal lawmakers receive. Other U.S. House members from Oklahoma also did mass mailings recently at taxpayer expense; some alerted constituents to town hall meetings, while others blasted big government spending.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, sent out a letter suggesting ways to corral "out-of-control” spending. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, sent out a colorful mail piece with a picture of an old tractor in a field and a survey asking residents to rank issues and suggest ways to stimulate the economy.

Republican Rep. Frank Lucas’ latest mailer gave a schedule of his April town hall meetings, encouragement to fill out census forms and news about his efforts to block action against farmers by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And Rep. John Sullivan, R-Tulsa, sent a mailer about the health care bill to nearly 50,000 residents in his district.

Fallin’s recent letter was aimed primarily at telling people what she had voted against and that she had "consistently fought” against higher taxes, big government and more debt.

Though mass mailings by members of Congress are often criticized as an unfair advantage for incumbents seeking reelection, Fallin isn’t running for her House seat again. So the mailing, postmarked just before an election-year deadline, has raised questions about her intent.

In a statement, Fallin said she uses official mail "to communicate with the constituents of my district and solicit their opinions. It is important they hear where I stand on the issues of the day, especially on something so many of my constituents feel very strongly about.

"Like the other communications tools employed by my office, this latest piece was in full compliance with all congressional regulations and received approval from the bipartisan congressional franking commission prior to printing or distribution. As with all expenses incurred by this office, the cost of this mail piece is readily available in the quarterly congressional statement of dispersal.”

The cost of the recent piece isn’t readily available in public documents; it will be months before congressional office expenses made in this quarter are compiled and posted online. Current House records only run through the end of last year, though Oklahoma offices last week responded quickly to inquiries about the costs of their recent mailings.

In 2009, Fallin spent less on mass mailings and communications than any of the other four U.S. House members from Oklahoma, though only Cole sent out more mail.

Founding fathers
Official congressional mail, often referred to as the frank, has been around since the First Continental Congress and is regulated by law and internal rules.

Mass mail pieces have to be approved by a bipartisan commission; there are restrictions on content and when they can be mailed.

Mass mailings
Here are the totals for mass mailings and communications in 2009 by Oklahoma members of the U.S. House. For some, the numbers include telephone town hall meetings. The numbers for Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, include radio and newspaper ads informing people of town hall meetings; the rules required that Cole count all potential listeners of an ad.

• Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee

Mail pieces/communication: 421,310

Cost: $149,603

• Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore

Mail pieces/communication: 6,339,369

Cost: $213,706

• Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma City

Mail pieces/communication: 833,467

Cost: $133,181

• Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne

Mail pieces/communication: 546,271

Cost: $170,872

• Rep. John Sullivan, R-Tulsa

Mail pieces/communication: 605,790

Cost: $151,127


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