Congressional Official Mail Costs

This report discusses the franking privilege , which allows Members of Congress to send official mail at government expense, such as letters commenting on legislation and casework, press releases, government reports, town meeting notices, and newsletters.

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 Summary 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. 1 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. 2 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 constituents. 3 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 CRS-2 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) CRS-3 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. 4 Appropriations for official mail costs may not be supplemented by any funds from any source, public or private. CRS-4 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. 5 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 [ ], visited Dec. 13, 2004. CRS-5 Table 1. Official Mail Costs, House of Representatives and Senate FY1972 to FY2004 (in current dollars)a Fiscal Year 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 Trans. qtr.b 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 Total House $ 18,422,602 18,709,109 21,781,570 24,508,846 38,340,515 14,924,536 27,860,414 35,109,000 27,729,087 43,421,682 29,686,213 59,894,236 40,306,625 67,348,392 45,308,146 60,400,595 44,200,958 77,852,082 57,220,627 72,942,800 31,343,891 54,339,650 24,619,471 42,372,044 24,553,291 28,990,765 15,371,039 27,726,139 14,917,510 27,020,352 13,880,980 27,896,810 15,705,688 30,040,867 $1,204,746,532 Senate $ 4,783,735 7,576,301 9,520,673 11,467,479 14,633,188 4,250,238 13,559,185 13,817,000 15,213,555 18,484,220 24,175,800 40,143,989 32,126,335 43,608,944 39,852,648 35,538,040 19,423,954 35,507,565 32,283,506 15,001,842 11,744,034 17,422,313 10,581,895 10,647,268 5,480,523 5,096,346 3,417,328 3,629,446 3,177,940 3,308,242 2,866,984 2,856,051 3,323,378 3,631,452 $518,151,397 Total $ 23,206,337 26,285,410 31,302,243 35,976,325 52,973,703 19,174,774 41,419,599 48,926,000 42,942,642 61,905,902 53,862,013 100,038,225 72,432,960 110,957,336 85,160,794 95,938,635 63,624,912 113,359,647 89,504,133 87,944,642 43,087,925 71,761,963 35,201,366 53,019,312 30,033,814 34,087,111 18,788,367 31,355,585 18,095,450 30,328,594 16,747,964 30,752,861 19,029,066 33,672,319 $1,722,897,929 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.