The perks of Congress: Members tout their work in free mailings

WASHINGTON–“Next Stop: 8,000 New Jobs,” beckons the headline of a flashy four-page flier, featuring a fast-moving train and a photo of Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from the 5th District who is running for Senate.

The mailing has all the trappings of a savvy campaign piece. It touts Murphy’s support for a new “cutting-edge” high-speed rail line, which he says would create 8,000 new jobs in the state, along with his work to strengthen U.S. manufacturing, help homeless veterans, and other issues.

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Ah, the perks of incumbency. The mailing wasn’t sent by his Senate campaign. It went out last week through his congressional office, sent to 94,000 households across the 5th District, at a cost of about $36,000 to U.S. taxpayers.

Murphy’s missive did not run afoul of any ethics rules. It was reviewed and approved in advance the by the House Franking Commission, said his deputy chief of staff, Kristen Bossi. “It’s definitely above board,” Bossi said.

And Murphy strongly defended it as an effective, legitimate way for him to communicate with his constituents.

“Franked mail… is one of the best remaining ways to communicate with people what my priorities are in Washington,” he said. Noting that few Connecticut reporters cover the delegation, he said, “it’s amazing how little information my constituents get about what I’m working on in Washington.”

Murphy’s mailer is one of hundreds of such pieces that go out each year from House and Senate incumbents to their constituents. Members of Congress all enjoy a so-called “franking” privilege-the ability to send out mail and other communications to their constituents, with the tab covered by taxpayers.

But what Murphy and other lawmakers see as an official communication tool, critics see as subsidized political pitches.

“It’s a big ad for how great I am,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington good-government group, said of Murphy’s mailing. She derided congressional mailings as “love-me material” which gives incumbents a huge leg-up over their challengers.

“It says, ‘this is why you should love me,” Sloan said of Murphy’s piece. “I don’t know if there are too many Americans who learn anything from these types of mailings.”

She said the line between a mailing that’s purely legislative business and one that’s overtly political is often blurry, and there are little to no ramifications for getting too close to the line. “It’s too bad that our hard-earned taxpayer dollars is spent on this kind of glossy love-me material,” Sloan said.

But it’s crystal clear why lawmakers like Murphy make ample use of the perk.

As a three-term member of the House, Murphy can continually highlight his congressional work, at least to his own 5th District constituents, thereby keeping his name and his pet issues in the limelight. And he can do so without spending any precious campaign dollars, as he ramps up for a campaign he has said could cost $10 million.

That gives him an edge over his Democratic rival, Susan Bysiewicz, in their 2012 campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman. But Murphy’s hardly the only Connecticut lawmaker taking advantage of taxpayer-funded mailings.

In 2010, the delegation’s five U.S. House members spent nearly $400,000 on franking expenses. The money for such mailings comes out of their annual federal office budgets, which also pays for staff salaries, travel, and a host of other expenses.

Murphy spent the most in 2010, racking up more than $135,000 in franking expenses. He sent out eight flyers similar to last week’s mailing, focusing on a range of issues-from health care reform to green jobs and the economy.

Murphy said that he likes the mailers in particular because they can include a survey, soliciting voters’ opinions on any given topic. “That’s a way for people to provide feedback to me,” he said. “What tends to happen is that people use that survey as a means to tell us other things that are on their mind. We get dozens, if not hundreds, of constituent cases based off the surveys that people send back.”

As for how polished the pieces look, he said, “I don’t apologize for my franked mail being eye-catching. The fact is if I’m going to send a piece of mail to someone, I want them to open it.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, was the only other lawmaker with more than $100,000 in mailing expenses. Like Murphy, he sent out eight fliers last year, highlighting everything from his work on veterans’ and defense issues to a mailer touting his votes against the economic bailouts.

Reps. John Larson and Rosa DeLauro, who represent the 1st and 3rd districts respectively, had the lowest franking expenses. They also happen to hold the two safest congressional seats in the state, usually sailing to re-election with only nominal opposition.

DeLauro only sent out one flier last year–a piece focused on health care reform. Most of her other mailings were postcard notices about town hall meetings or neighborhood office hours. (They also included a public-service element, featuring a photo of a missing child and the number to call with any information.)

Larson’s only flier last year was a Social Security piece, warning seniors against fraudulent schemes by con-artists seeking their personal information. The flier also blasted Republican plans to “dismantle” the retirement program.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, spent about $73,000 on franking last year, including four fliers. Much of other franking communications were e-newsletters, updating voters on recent happenings in Washington. Himes also often includes surveys, asking in one case about the war in Afghanistan and in another about budget-cutting.

The franking privilege is older than Congress itself, a practice copied from Great Britain by the First Continental Congress. Lawmakers are only allowed to use the franking privilege for issues of “public concern or public service.” They can’t send any mail that solicits contributions or votes. And House members can’t send any mass mailings 90 days before a primary or general election.

Although they’re not supposed to be political or campaign pitches, the quantity of such missives often ebb and flow with the political cycle. For example, members of the Connecticut delegation all spent significantly less money on franking in 2009, when they were not on the ballot, than in 2010, when they were.

Courtney spent about $52,000 on franking in 2009, but doubled that during the election year. Murphy spent about $85,000 in 2009, compared to the $135,000 in 2010.

Murphy did not dispute that the franking privilege was one benefit of incumbency. “Incumbents are always able to command more attention because of their position,” he said, “but we’re also pretty easy targets because of the votes that we cast.”