Let’s be perfectly frank
Another thing that stinks about government – your congressman can spend your tax dollars on a full-color mailer full of made-up numbers about a highly-tinged policy issue, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. It’s called the franking privilege, it dates back to 17th century England, and it can show up in your mailbox like it did mine this week with a nicely-done mailer from Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte.
The headline literally screamed at me from the page. “ONE ACT OF CONGRESS WILL COST US MILLIONS OF JOBS AND INCREASE YOUR COST OF LIVING BY $4,600.” Inside we get a flurry of other numbers on the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act. Looking at the fine print, we see the source of the data is a blog post on the website of the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, which when you take the bait and refer to the blog you see is based not so much on hard data but on suppositions that the targets for renewable energy will be “hard to meet” and related blather.
But you knew that already, because you knew that Goodlatte wasn’t sending you a policy primer on your dime. Technically, we can say, the label in the upper-right corner of the first page of the mailer, “Congressman Goodlatte’s Energy Report,” also invites you to an energy conference on July 27, which the back page tells you will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on a Monday morning in Lynchburg, not exactly the most convenient time and location for anybody not in the Lynchburg area and not otherwise gainfully employed.
If Goodlatte actually wanted you to learn more, as that back page relates, on how we can “lessen our dangerous dependence on foreign energy,” he’d have conferences across the Sixth District and at times when people could be there. This isn’t about a congressman trying to get a feel for the pulse of his community on an important issue by lining up experts to talk from all sides of the issue and then getting feedback from people on what they think the best course of action should be. The word charade comes to mind as a better descriptor, and the repeated references to poorly-researched data from the Heritage Foundation is what leads me to that particular word choice.
I told you all of that so I could now tell you this: Folks, we’ve got to do something about how our tax dollars are being misappropriated by people like Bob Goodlatte to get out their partisan messages in this manner. Let me be clear – Goodlatte isn’t breaking the law here or even abusing the system. According to a 2006 analysis done by the Associated Press of congressional use of the franking privilege, through which members of Congress can transmit mail matter to their constituents without having to pay the postage, Goodlatte was in the middle of the pack in the House of Representatives in his use of the franking privilege, running up $40,420 in ’06 on constituent mailings to rank 250th among the 435 members of the House in that year.
We hear calls for reform of the franking-privilege system every so often. Former Illinois Republican Congressman Ray LaHood, now the Secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration, was a stickler on the issue, famously refusing to invoke his franking privilege even once in his 13 years in Congress but also introducing several pieces of legislation to rein in the privilege, most notably by limiting its use to replies to constituent-initiated mail.
Funny thing – even the Heritage Foundation cited in the Goodlatte energy mailer has called on Congress to work toward eliminating the mass mailings that members can send out on the taxpayers’ dime, calling them “mailings which accomplish little besides serving as taxpayer-funded quasi-campaign aids.”
That one hurt the worst, didn’t it, Bob?
I’m with LaHood. Limit the franking privilege to answers to constituent mail, and we’re good. According to a report of the Congressional Research Service, mass mailing comprises 87 percent of all congressional mailing costs, to a tune of $18.1 million a year.
And as nice as the mass mailings look and all – and seriously, whoever did Goodlatte’s most recent mailing should be commended, because it was top-notch – it’s not like congressmen don’t have other means to get these messages out to constituents.
For instance, I just got something else from Goodlatte today via e-mail about how the federal government is trying to do a big-government health-care program. And my guess is that mass e-mail was a helluva lot cheaper to send out than that super-duper mailer was.
- Column by Chris Graham