WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Courtney’s staff recently put the finishing touches on a piece of government mail that sharply criticizes the House Republicans’ Medicare plan. But GOP officials have told the Connecticut Democrat that he can’t send it out to his constituents unless he softens the barbs in the piece.
On Tuesday, Courtney, D-2nd District, and four other House Democrats who’ve also had Medicare mailers held up because of proposed GOP revisions, sent a caustic letter to House Speaker John Boehner, accusing the GOP majority of “politically motivated censorship” when it comes to descriptions of the Republican Medicare plan.
“We must surmise that there is a deliberate, strategic attempt to censor any Member communications that echoes the widespread public criticism of the Republican Plan for Medicare,” Courtney and the other House Democrats wrote.
House Republicans, in turn, say Democrats are abusing their franked-mail privileges to launch exaggerated political attacks.
“Constituents deserve some assurance that the information sent by lawmakers using tax dollars is factual and not political propaganda,” said Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for the Republicans on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the franking process.
The franked-mail flap provides a rare glimpse into what is normally a little-noticed, but sometimes charged, partisan process to shape constituent mailings for political advantage.
Wood said Democrats made similar requests for revisions on Republican mailers during the last Congress. “Democrats are apparently suffering from selective memory,” Wood said, charging that Democrats rejected or revised Republican mailers that included words like “government-run” to describe the Democrats’ health care law.
The franking fight was first reported by Politico Huddle, a tipsheet on Congress.
Members of Congress all have a so-called “franking” privilege-the ability to send out mailings to their constituents at the expense of the federal government. The topics often focus on the latest, hottest debates playing out in Congress, and the line between informing voters about legislative business and pitching a partisan message is frequently blurry.
Any mailings that lawmakers want to send to 500 or more different recipients in their district has be approved by the Franking Commission, a bipartisan body made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. Each party’s staff on the commission reads the proposed mailings, makes suggested revisions, and forwards it to the other side for review and approval.
Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Administration Committee, said getting a piece of franked mail approves is “usually a pretty straightforward process.” But right now, he said, “the Republican staff are holding specific pieces and requiring that the Democratic members make revisions” in order to win approval. No mailing can be sent out unless both sides sign off on it.
At the crux of the current controversy is the House Republicans’ proposal to privatize Medicare. Under the plan, drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Medicare would no longer operate as an open-ended entitlement program. Instead, seniors would get federal subsidies to buy private insurance.
Republicans say the measure would save billions of dollars and help rein in the government’s annual deficits. But Democrats have relentlessly criticized the “Ryan plan,” saying it shifts the spiraling cost of health care to the elderly and will essentially “end Medicare as we know it.”
The proposal has become a political hot potato, with polls showing it is deeply unpopular among seniors, a crucial voting bloc. Democrats credit public opposition to Ryan’s plan with their victory three weeks ago in a special election to represent New York’s 26th District, which had been a GOP stronghold.
So, it’s no wonder that Courtney and other Democrats want to send out Medicare mailers to their voters.
“This Congress has been engaged in a fervent, often divisive debate over the future of the Medicare system,” Courtney and his colleagues wrote to Boehner. “Given the magnitude of the proposed changes, we have engaged in aggressive efforts to educate our constituents on the potential impact” of Ryan’s proposal.
Courtney’s proposed mailing includes a quote from the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, which says that the House GOP plan “doesn’t stabilize Medicare, it kills it. It doesn’t save money, it shifts costs.” Republicans on the Franking Commission drew a big X through that pull-out quote and wrote in the margin, “Out.”
The Republicans are also seeking several changes to Courtney’s description of Ryan’s plan. For example, his mailer states that the GOP proposal would “End the Medicare guarantee through privatization.” Scribbled notes on the document suggest changing “end” to “cut,” and take issue with Courtney’s statement that says seniors would end up paying an additional $6,400 in out-of-pocket costs for their health care by 2022 under Ryan’s proposal. The figure is from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, but the GOP staff argues that “anyone 55 and under could see their health care costs increase dramatically” under federal health reform.
Courtney submitted the flyer to the Franking Commission for review at the end of May, saying he wanted to send it out about 28,000 copies on June 10th. The Democratic and Republican staffs reviewed the mailer within a few days, but it’s now stuck in a holding pattern amid back-and-forth over the Republican’s requested changes.
“The rising lack of popularity of the House Republican Plan for Medicare hardly justifies the use of the Franking Commission to obstruct legitimate communication between Members and the Americans we serve,” Courtney and his colleagues wrote to Boehner. “This politically motivated censorship undermines our ability to executive one of our primary roles.”
Anderson, the Democratic spokesman for the Administration Committee, said that Republicans approved similar mailings before the New York special election, which turned in large part on the Medicare debate and handed the Democrats a surprise victory. One of the earlier mailers even included a photo of a gravestone with the words “Medicare RIP,” on it. Anderson said the results of that recent House race have made the GOP more wary about the Medicare plan-and more aggressive in editing Democratic descriptions of it.
But Wood, the Republican committee spokeswoman, said the earlier Medicare mailings should never have been approved and just “slipped through” because of the volume of mail the committee staff has to review. “You’re talking about a committee that goes through 600” proposed mailings a week, she said.
She pointed to examples from the last Congress, where Democratic staff on the commission called for changes to Republican descriptions of the health care legislation.
In several instances, Democrats circled GOP descriptions of the bill as a “government takeover of health care” and instead revised it to say “government regulation of health care,” and they also nixed a reference to “Obamacare.” In another instance, Democrats asked a Republican lawmaker to delete the words “runaway” and “explosion” contained in a constituent letter about his efforts to rein in government bureaucracy and spending.
“Now, when it’s politically inconvenient, they don’t want to hold their communications up to the same standards they applied to ours,” she said. “They want to have it both ways.”