Order Code RS20720
Updated November 24, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Congressional Mail: History of the Franking
Privilege and Options for Change
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. This report provides a history of official congressional mail
sent at government expense (franking privilege), a description of its costs, distribution
of franking funds, criticism and defense of franking, past franking reforms, and
considerations for possible future franking reform. This report will be updated as
legislative actions warrant. See CRS Report RS20671, Official Congressional Mail
Costs, and CRS Report RS20700, Congressional Franking Privilege: An Overview, by
The franking privilege, which allows Members of Congress to send official mail at
government expense,1 dates from 1660, when it was first instituted by the British House
of Commons. In the United States, the First Continental Congress passed legislation in
1775 giving its legislators mailing privileges to better inform their constituents.
The franking practice continues in the modern Congress due to the perceived public
interest in facilitating official communications between elected officials and the citizens
they represent. Proponents of the franking privilege argue that without the privilege most
Members could not afford to send important information to their constituents, thereby
curtailing the delivery of ideas, reports, assistance, and services.
Use of the frank, however, is limited. It may not be used to solicit money or votes.
Letters related to political campaigns, political parties, or personal business or friendships
are not permitted. For example, a legislator may not use the frank on a holiday greeting,
The Member’s signature, called the “frank,” appears in place of a postage stamp or a metered
mail mark in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope containing official mail from that
Member. This signature is recognized by the U. S. Postal Service as the equivalent cost of a
postage stamp for that piece and rate of mail. John Pontius, “Franking,” in The Encyclopedia of
the United States Congress, 4 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), vol. 2, pp. 883888.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
a message of sympathy, an invitation to a party fund raising event, or a request for
Cost of Franking. Although the word “frank” is derived from the medieval Latin
word francus and means the right to send mail without paying postage, franking is not
free. During the last 15 years, Congress spent from a high of $113.4 million in FY1988
to a low of $16.7 million in FY2001 to send official mail. One of the major reasons the
cost of official mail increased in the 1980s was the increased use of computer generated
mail and mass mailings (newsletters, questionnaires, town meeting notices, and other
mailings of 500 or more pieces that are of substantially identical content). Figure 1
depicts in graphic form changes in official mail costs between FY1972 and FY2003.
Figure 1. Official Mail Costs, by Chamber,
House of Representatives and Senate,
Fiscal Years 1972 - 2003
(in current dollars)
The decrease in postal expenditures in the 1990s was primarily due to congressional
reforms enacted in 1989, 1990, and subsequent years, which dramatically reduced
franking costs. Congress historically has spent more for official mail costs in election
years than in non-election years. For example, the House spent $28 million in FY2002,
an election year, and $15.7 million in FY2003, a non-election year. Comparably, the
Senate spent $2.9 million in FY2002 and $3.3 million in FY2003. Although Members
are prohibited from sending mass mailings for specific periods (90 days in the House 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. The $19 million spent on franking in FY2003 was
slightly less than 1% of the $3.36 billion budget for the entire legislative branch for
Appropriations and Allocations to Individual Members. Congress pays the
U.S. Postal Service for franked mail through annual appropriations for the legislative
branch. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and subsequently the
respective chambers, determine the amount to be appropriated for each of the two bodies.
Each Chamber makes an allotment to each Member from these appropriations. In the
Senate, the allowance is administered by the Committee on Rules and Administration;
in the House, by the Committee on House Administration.2
Representatives and Senators are authorized a specific dollar allotment for franked
mail, according to a formula based on the number of addresses in their districts/states. In
the Senate, the mail allowance is one of three allowances that comprise each Senator’s
“personnel and office expenses account.” The other two provide funds for office staff
and office expenses. The combined funds may be used without limitation in any one
allocation category. The franked mail allocation is subject to law and Senate regulations.
Since January 3, 1999, in the House, the funds for each Representative’s franked
mail component have been combined with his or her two allowances for office staff and
office expenses. The combined funds (“Members Representational Allowance”) may be
used without limitation in any one allocation category. The franked mail allocation is
subject to law and House regulations.
Criticism of the Franking Privilege. In recent years, the franking privilege has
come under press scrutiny and public criticism. Opponents call for franking restrictions,
an outright ban either totally or only in election years, or free mailing privileges for
Notwithstanding the use of the frank to keep constituents better informed, critics
allege that the vast majority of franked mail is unsolicited mail. According to former
Senate Rules and Administration Committee chairman Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., “In
1981 and 1982, mass-mail constituted about 92 percent of all Senate mail with newsletters
accounting for 69 percent. By contrast, letters sent in response to incoming mail were only
4 percent of the total.”3
A decade earlier, pre-election mailings reached such proportions that Common
Cause filed a lawsuit in 1973 in response to alleged franking abuses by Congress during
Appropriations for official mail costs may not be supplemented by funds from any source,
public or private (P.L. 101-520, 104 Stat. 2279, Sec. 311(c), Legislative Branch Appropriations
Sen. Charles Mathias, “Senatorial Newsletters,” remarks in the Senate, Congressional Record,
vol. 128 (Dec. 20, 1982), pp. 32737-32738.
the 1972 election campaign. Common Cause contended that the frank was
unconstitutional and gave incumbents an unfair advantage over challengers.
Within 2 months, anxious to set its own rules before the courts could interfere,
Congress passed a new law setting guidelines for use of the frank.4 It included tighter
definitions of the types of mail eligible for the frank, and a prohibition on mass mailings
28 days before primary and general elections. To oversee use of the franking privilege,
the House set up the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards and the Senate
gave its Select Ethics Committee the responsibility to make routine decisions regarding
the frankability of mail.
In the Common Cause lawsuit, the Federal District Court found that the franking
rules Congress adopted made a reasonable attempt to distinguish between official material
and political material which could not be sent under the frank.5 In 1983, the Supreme
Court declined to reconsider a lower court opinion in the lawsuit initiated by Common
Cause. The franking issue reemerged in the late 1980s as the press, taxpayers groups, and
Members of Congress argued for further franking reform.
Franking Reform. The franking privilege has carried an element of controversy
since the earliest days of the Continental Congress. While few would quarrel with the
intent behind the frank — to help Members of Congress better communicate with their
constituents — the privilege has, on occasion, been subject to alleged abuse. Misuse was
such a problem in the latter part of the 19th century that Congress repealed the franking
law for one year (1873), and then reenacted it. Subsequently, Members of Congress relied
on the courts and Post Office Department for interpretive rulings and advisory opinions
on the frankability of materials under an “official business” test. These rulings and
opinions were the only guidelines on use of the frank, and they were not enforced by the
Post Office. In fact, in December 1968, the Post Office stopped giving advisory opinions
on use of the frank.
The reforms begun by Congress in 1973, mentioned earlier, continued in 1977, when
the House and Senate amended their respective codes of ethics. The amendments banned
the use of private and political funds to print and prepare franked mass mailings, and
extended the preelection cutoff of mass mailings before primary and general elections
from 28 to 60 days.6
Changes in the House ethics code also required that the costs of franked mail be paid
only from funds in an appropriation bill, a restriction not made applicable to Senators.
However, Congress later statutorily required both Representatives and Senators to pay the
costs of franked mail from funds specifically appropriated for that purpose, and prohibited
P.L. 93-191, 87 Stat. 737, To Amend Title 39 United States Code, To Clarify the Proper Use
of the Franking Privilege of Members of Congress.
Common Cause v. Bolger, 512 F. Supp. 26, 32 (D.D.C. 1980).
H.Res. 287, Mar. 2, 1977, and S.Res. 110, Apr. 1, 1977. In 1996, the House extended the
preelection cutoff from 60 to 90 days (P.L. 104-197, 110 Stat. 2401, Sec. 102, Legislative Branch
Appropriations Act, FY1997).
the use of supplemental funds from private and public sources.7 The House also required
that newsletters and other postal patron mailings be sent at the least costly postal rate.
Postal patron mailings are delivered to every stop on a postal delivery route, but not to a
specifically named recipient.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Congress took several significant steps to reduce the
costs of franking and ensure better public accountability. This occurred during a time
when first class mail rates increased 48% from 25 cents in 1989 to 37 cents in 2002. In
1986, the Senate established a franking allowance for each Senator and for the first time
required public disclosure of expenditures. The House established a separate franking
allowance and required public disclosure in 1990.8
In 1989, Congress established separate franking appropriations accounts for the
House and Senate, providing more control to each house of its franking budget.9
Previously, funds for both houses were combined in a single appropriation account
“Official Mail Costs.” In 1990, Congress required that the costs of each Representative’s
use of the frank be included in the quarterly report of the Clerk of the House on House
expenditures.10 The Act also required the Postmaster General to (1) monitor use of the
frank by each Representative and Senator; (2) notify each Member on a monthly basis of
the amount of his or her franking allowance used; and (3) prohibit the delivery of franked
mail in excess of a Member’s allowance.11 Since October 1992, Members have been
prohibited from sending mass mailings outside their districts.12 This action followed a
U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that it was unconstitutional for Members to send mass
mailings outside their districts.13
Since October 1994, Senators have been allowed to use official office expense funds
for mass mailings that do not exceed $50,000. Senators may not use the frank for mass
mailings above that amount nor pay for mailings with official office expense funds.
Exempt from the Senate mass mailing limitation are direct responses to a communication
from an individual; mailings to communications to other Members of Congress or to a
federal, state or local government official; news releases to communications media; and
town meeting notices. Senators are prohibited from mailing town meeting notices fewer
than 60 days before the day of any primary or general election.14
In 1995, the House consolidated Members’ allowances for clerk-hire, official office
expenses, and mail costs used into one allowance, “Members’ Representational
P.L. 101-520, 104 Stat. 2279, Sec. 311(c), Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1991.
Ibid., Sec. 311.
P.L. 101-163, 103 Stat. 1052, Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1990.
Since Oct. 1, 1995, the costs of each Representative’s frank usage are published in the
Statement of Disbursements by the House, compiled by the House Chief Administrative Officer.
P.L. 101-520, Sec. 311(b).
P.L. 102-392, 106 Stat. 1722, Sec. 309, Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1993.
Coalition to End the Permanent Congress v. Marvin T. Runyon, et al, 979 F.2d 219 (D.C. Cir.
P.L. 103-283, 108 Stat. 1427-1428, Sec. 5-6, Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1995.
Allowances” that allows greater flexibility in use of the frank.15 In 1996, three important
franking provisions were approved by Congress. The first extended the prohibition on
unsolicited mass mailings by a House member from 60 to 90 days prior to primary and
general elections. The second required that each mass mailing contain the statement,
“This mailing was prepared, published, and mailed at taxpayer expense.” The third
required that the quarterly Statement of Disbursements of the House, contain a summary
tabulation setting for each House member in the period, the total number of mass mail
pieces sent, the number of mass mail pieces per address, the total postage costs of mass
mailings, and the mass mail postage cost per address.16 In 2003, the 90 day pre-election
cutoff in the House did not apply to solicited e-mail.
Considerations for Possible Future Franking Reform. Critics of franking
privilege have offered a number of suggestions that Congress may wish to consider
concerning further reductions in congressional mail costs. Several of these ideas have
been incorporated as bills in the 108th Congress or earlier Congresses. Among these
ideas are the following proposals.
Abolish the franking privilege and establish a postage allowance. Allow
challengers the same postage allowance as Members of Congress.
Publicly disclose all indirect costs of franking — costs of printing and
acquiring mail lists, salary of all congressional staff who compose mass
mailings, salary and expenses of handling, folding and processing mail.
Prohibit all mass mailings (including newsletters, questionnaires, and
targeted mail), or reduce the number of pieces that comprise a mass
mailing (500 or more pieces of mail identical in content).
Limit the use of the frank to responses to direct constituent requests for
assistance. Prohibit non-solicited mail, except for press releases and
correspondence with government agencies.
Disclose individual House Member franking costs quarterly in the
Congressional Record, as is the Senate practice for its Members.
Critics of the frank argue that these reforms would reduce the use and costs of the
frank and put challengers on a more equal footing with incumbents regarding postage.
Defense of Franking Privilege. Against these possible proposals to reduce
franking costs, it is argued that further dollar or volume limits on the use of the frank may
impair the ability of Members of Congress to keep in touch with their constituents.
Franking limits may also reduce the effectiveness of Members who represent diverse
constituencies who write frequently not only from the Member’s district/state but from
other parts of the nation as well.
Unlike the President, who can rely on mass media coverage to get his message to the
public, Members of Congress continue to rely primarily on franked mail to communicate
to their constituents. Opponents of further franking limits argue that additional limits
could put Congress at an institutional disadvantage when compared with the resources and
facilities that the President and the executive branch are able to command.
P.L. 104-53, 109 Stat. 519, Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1996.
P.L. 104-197, 110 Stat. 2414-2415, Sec. 311, Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, FY1997.