In the fall of 1996 a friend of mine ran for congress as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic district. In addition to having to overcome the demographics, he was also fighting an entrenched incumbent and the disaster of Bob Dole’s lackluster presidential campaign. Predictably, he lost the election.
While working occasionally on the campaign, I began to pay attention to some of the biases built into our electoral system. This essay describes one such bias, the franking privilege, and proposes an alternative. It was submitted to the San Jose Mercury News, but was not published.
11 November 1996
Of all the advantages provided to incumbents in our electoral system perhaps the most pernicious is the franking privilege, which allows members of congress to mail “informational materials” to their constituents at government (meaning taxpayer) expense.
In theory, this privilege is provided to encourage members of the government to keep “the people” informed of what their government is up to, on what legislation is pending or has been passed/defeated, on how well or badly their elected officials have comported themselves in representing their constituents’ best interests. In theory it is not to be used for partisan or electoral purposes.
In practice, these mailings are often thinly disguised campaign advertisements, focusing narrowly on those issues and activities — including activities completely unrelated to the business of governing — which make the incumbent look good to the voters. These “advertisements” can be doubly effective because they are sent out with the imprimatur of the U.S. Congress, giving the appearance of “official” and, therefore, unbiased information. They are also frequently sent out between election seasons, which means the voters who receive them are less likely to apply “campaign filters” to them when evaluating the information presented. The overall effect is a no-cost (to the candidate) barrage of favorable publicity for the incumbent before the campaign even begins.
There have been efforts to eliminate the franking privilege, but even the most adamant supporters of such initiatives are often uncomfortable with entirely eliminating the only official communication channel between the citizenry and their elected representatives. It would be advantageous for all of us to eliminate the abuses of this institution without eliminating its utility.
One way to do so is to differentiate between information we need to obtain about the legislative process from franked mail and information that incumbents provide merely for partisan purposes. Having defined those categories, we could design a reform of the franking system to emphasize the former and to eliminate the latter.
What we need to know about the legislative process can be quite broad and has been mentioned before: what is the government up to? What legislation is pending or has been passed/defeated? How have our representatives acted to further or hinder our best interests?
What incumbents need to insert to obtain a partisan benefit is quite limited: direct association of their name with an idea or deed or activity or group with which the voters find favor. If this name-association is not present they get no advantage.
Based on this premise I propose the following reforms:
- All franked mail should be sent from the state congressional delegation rather than from the individual members of congress. The mail may originate from one member’s office but the official imprimatur (and return address) should be from the entire state delegation. This eliminates the direct name-association between the member and the information in the mailing.
- No names — of Senators or of Congressmen, of government officials, of political parties, or of potential electoral opponents — may be mentioned in the articles or headlines contained in the mailing; all other subjects, policy positions, and ideas are fair game. This allows the mailings to address the substance of legislative issues but does not allow the politicians to pat themselves on the back — or to take pokes at their opponents — at our expense.The only exceptions to this rule should be for lists of legislative votes or sponsored legislation; to comply with the rules, any such lists should contain, at a minimum, the votes/sponsorships of all members of the state delegation on all pieces of legislation put before the congress since the last mailing. This ensures that overall voting and sponsorship records can be made available but does not allow the highlighting of particular votes or sponsorships by particular members of congress.
This rule also has the advantage of being easy to interpret and monitor for violations.
- Violations of these rules should result in extension of the franking privilege to all challengers in the next election. Rather than trying to determine the proper degree of admonishment or censure or fine to punish abuse of the franking privilege, punishment should be in-kind: if a member of congress abuses the franking privilege to create a de-facto campaign advertisement, then his opponents in the next election should be given the same opportunity, thus eliminating the advantage.
Handled in this way franked mail could once again serve the purpose for which it was intended — to provide the citizens with information about their legislature and the legislative process — without being hijacked for partisan political gain.
© Copyright 1996, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell