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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
Members can’t send a mass mailing within 90 days of an election in which they’ll appear on the ballot.

For Oklahoma members, the deadline to have mailings postmarked was April 28.

Members can’t send mailings outside of their congressional districts and each piece must state that it was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.

Cole also used the franking privilege to run radio and newspaper ads in his district announcing town hall meetings; the ads must also note that they were paid for by taxpayers.

"Franked mail is an effective way for me to solicit input from the people I represent, notify them of town hall meetings and let them know what I am doing in Congress to represent their values,” Cole said.

Campaign literature?
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., sought in the last Congress to require more specific information on each mailing about the cost, but was unsuccessful.

Congress spent more than $34 million on official mail in fiscal year 2006, an election year; that was about twice the amount spent in 2007.

Flake also wants new restrictions on the designs.

In recent years, Flake wrote, "these once-straightforward mailings have changed in appearance as Members move away from using basic letterhead and towards designs featuring a glossy, colorful finish and closely resembling campaign materials.

"At the same time, despite statutory ‘blackout dates’ preventing mass mailings from being sent immediately before elections, the number of mass-mailed pieces sent in election years is routinely higher than in off-years.”

‘Important tool’
Not all of the mass mailings look like campaign brochures.

Boren, Cole and other Oklahomans have sent out postcards with the kind of information people often need — how to contact their lawmakers about problems with the Social Security Administration or other government agencies.

In an interview, Boren said many of the towns in his eastern Oklahoma district are relatively remote, with little or no local media and no broadband Internet service.

Official mail "is an important tool,” Boren said. "People need to know how we vote on certain issues.”

Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said in a statement last week that he uses official mail to respond to people who contact his office.

"The federal government has a real spending problem, and we need to be taking serious steps to cut wasteful and unnecessary spending,” he said. "However, I do not believe that the franked mail program, which allows members of Congress to communicate with their constituents, is wasteful or unnecessary. If anything, I think recent events have shown us most Americans would agree that many of my colleagues should be communicating with them more — not less.”

Sullivan said he sent a mailing about the health care bill because of the confusion caused by its complexity.

"I work for the people of the First Congressional District, and communicating with them is not just my job, it’s my responsibility,” he said.

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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