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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Let’s Be Frank. Congress Likes Being Re-elected

May 18, 2009

There is always a political dichotomy between what voters think of their local Congressman and their attitudes toward Congress as an institution.

Simply put: voters usually like their U.S. Representative but hate Congress - despite the fact that as with everything else - the whole is the sum of the parts.

Nonetheless, voters continue to re-elect their incumbents and time and time again are frustrated and disappointed at the end of the two-year congressional term. Then along comes another election cycle and the whole process repeats itself.

There is an easy explanation for this, and it can be summed up in one word: Incumbency.

Incumbent members of Congress take care of each other and nowhere do they act more egregiously than in the bipartisan effort to appropriate millions of dollars to themselves under the guise of "constituent service."

The official name of this privilege - sending you multiple mass mailings at your cost - dates back to the founding of the country - and is called the "Congressional Frank." The name is derived from the Latin word "francus" meaning free - yet there’s nothing free about it.

Essentially "franking" is the privilege to send mail over the signature of an authorized person - in this case Members of Congress - stamped in the upper right-hand corner of the mailing where a standard postage stamp is usually affixed.

The dirty secret in Washington is that Members of Congress carefully plan these mailings to make sure the direct mail pieces coincide with political issues that will help them get re-elected. These mass mailings are always part of their overall re-election campaign strategy - although never admitted to as such.

District voters are catalogued by issue interest and mailings are systematically sent out based on this information - also under the use of the frank. These smaller computer-generated mailings are particularly effective because you are given the impression that your local U.S. Representative is personally staying in touch with you.

The franking privilege is regulated by a six-member Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards (three Republicans and three Democrats) known on Capitol Hill as the "Franking Commission." These members establish an "official mail allowance" for each member of Congress - all part of a budget that you pay for.

The "Franking Commission" is one area where there is complete bi-partisanship between the political parties with each member of the commission sharing the same goal: let’s make it easier to communicate with our constituents - and thus win re-election.

Over the years the direct-mail pieces themselves have become more appealing through the use of multiple color brochures, increased use of congressional photos, and a slicker printing quality which resembles standard re-election material.

The real goal of these mailings is to make sure you maintain a favorable opinion of your local congressman - regardless of how you may feel about Congress as a whole.

In no other industry - whether it be sports, business or entertainment - is it necessary to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to communicate with an interested public through the U.S. Mail – and the reality is it’s not necessary for Congress either.

There have been a few attempts at reforms regarding the use of the frank - yet it remains the incumbent’s number one arsenal in his/her bid for re-election.

This is not to say that Members of Congress should not have a realistic postage allowance to respond to individual constituent requests - but those glossy three-color brochures you receive under the congressional frank have but one objective: to win re-election.

A re-election you help finance - like it or not.