Order Code RS20671
Updated March 1, 2005
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Congressional Official Mail Costs
John S. Pontius
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
The congressional franking privilege allows Members of Congress to send official
mail at government expense. During the past 15 years, franking reform efforts reduced
franking expenditures by 70% from $113.4 million in FY1988 to $34 million in FY2004
(Table 1)1. House mail costs have decreased from a high of $77.9 million in FY1988
to a low of $13.9 million in FY2001. The Senate has dramatically reduced its costs,
from $43.6 million in FY1984 to $2.9 million in FY2002. This report will be updated
as legislative actions occur. See CRS Report RS20720, Congressional Mail: History
of the Franking Privilege and Options for Change, and CRS Report RS20700,
Congressional Franking Privilege: An Overview, by John Pontius.
The franking privilege, which dates from 1660, when it was first instituted by the
British House of Commons, covers communications relating to the legislator’s official
and representational duties, such as letters commenting on legislation and casework, press
releases, government reports, town meeting notices, and newsletters.2 The privilege
allows Members to send frankable mail bearing the official signature of the Member
instead of a postage stamp.3 The frank cannot be used to solicit votes or money or to send
letters related to political campaigns or political parties.
In the 1980s, the costs of the franking privilege rose with the increased use of computer
generated mail and mass mailings (newsletters, town meeting notices, and other mailings of 500
or more pieces that were of substantially identical content). Part of the higher mail costs were
due to rising postal rates. First class mail rates increased 146% from 15 cents in 1980 to 37
cents in 2002. Standard mail (formerly third class) rates increased 122% from 6.7 cents in 1980
to 14.9 cents in 2002.
In the United States the use of the frank began with the First Continental Congress, which
passed legislation in 1775 giving its legislators free mailing privileges to better inform their
John Samuels Pontius, “Franking,” in The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, 4 vols.
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), vol. 2, pp. 883-888.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Although few would argue with the intent behind the frank — to help Members
better communicate with their constituents — the privilege in recent years has been
subjected to increased public criticism and extensive scrutiny by the media. Proponents
of franking argue that, without the privilege, most Members could not afford to send
important information to their constituents, in effect curtailing the delivery of ideas,
reports, assistance, and services. Opponents, concerned with incumbent perquisites, mail
costs, and the cost of Congress, have called for additional franking restrictions, including
an outright ban on franking for Members, a prohibition on use of the frank in election
years, and to allow free mailing privileges for electoral challengers.
Significant reforms have been adopted as a consequence of this debate. Although the
cost of official congressional mail has fluctuated widely over the past 30 years, franking
reform efforts have produced a more than 62% reduction in the last 15years. Figure 1
depicts in graphic form changes in official mail costs between FY1972 and FY2004.
Mail Costs Reduced
Franking is not free. During FY2004, Congress spent $34 million on official
postage. Approximately 89% of these expenditures were by the House of Representatives
and 11% by the Senate. Congress pays the U.S. Postal Service for franked mail through
appropriations for the legislative branch. The House and Senate Appropriations
Committees, and subsequently the respective chambers, determine the amount to be
Figure 1. Official Mail Costs, by Chamber,
House of Representatives and Senate,
Fiscal Years 1972 - 2004
(in current dollars)
appropriated for each of the two bodies. After the annual legislative branch
appropriations act becomes law, each chamber makes an allotment to each Member. In
the Senate, the allocated allowance is regulated by the Committees on Rules and
Administration and Ethics; in the House, by the Committee on House Administration and
Commission on Mailing Standards.4
The first major reform was instituted in 1989, when appropriations for congressional
mail were separated into two accounts — one for the House and one for the Senate. This
was done to allow each chamber greater control over its mail costs. Also in 1989, the
Senate established an official mail allowance for each Member, and for the first time,
required public disclosure of the costs of franked mailings. The House took similar action
a year later. These reforms occurred during a time (1989 to 2004) when postal rates
increased dramatically — first class mail rates increased by 48%, while standard (third
class) mail rates increased by 47.5%. (See Figure 2.) As a consequence, the amount of
mail Members could send to their constituents under the frank was further reduced.
Figure 2. First Class and Standard Mail Rates, 1972-2004
As can be seen in Figure 1, Congress historically has spent more for official mail
costs in election years than in non-election years. For example, the House spent $30
million in FY2004, an election year and $15.7 million in FY2003 a non-election year.
Comparably, the Senate spent $3.6 million in FY2004 and $3.3 million in FY2003.
Appropriations for official mail costs may not be supplemented by any funds from any source,
public or private.
Although Members are prohibited from sending mass mailings for specific periods (90
days in the House5 and 60 days in the Senate) prior to a primary, run-off, or general
election in which they are a candidate, they do send a considerably higher volume of mail
in the months immediately preceding the prohibition period. Table 1 provides statistics
on the dollar amounts (in current dollars) of House of Representatives, Senate, and total
congressional mail costs between FY1972 and FY2004.
The 90 day pre-election cutoff in the House does not apply to solicited e-mail. On Sept. 8,
2003, the House Administration Committee announced a new policy relating to subscriber e-mail
lists and updates:
A subscribed e-mail update is an e-mail sent to individuals who have subscribed to an
e-mail list. Members must notify individuals who subscribe to e-mail updates that the
individual is authorizing the Member to send regular e-mail updates from the
Member’s office to the individual’s e-mail account. All e-mail updates to subscribers
must contain an option that enables the individual to unsubscribe from the e-mail list.
Members may send subscribed e-mail updates without obtaining an advisory opinion.
U.S. Congress, Committee on House Administration, Members’ Congressional Handbook,
“Subscribed E-mail Updates and Non-Subscribed E-mail Updates,”108th Cong., 1st sess.,
available at [http://www.house.gov/cha/nhandbookbody1.htm ], visited Dec. 13, 2004.
Table 1. Official Mail Costs, House of Representatives and Senate
FY1972 to FY2004
(in current dollars)a
a. Costs are only for the cost of official (franked) mail sent by Congress.
b. The transition quarter (July 1, 1976, to Sept. 30, 1976) was required as a result of the change in the
beginning of the Federal government fiscal year from July 1 to October 1. The FY1976 Legislative
Branch Appropriations included funds for FY1976 and for the 3-month transition period.