I recently got an expensively produced full-color glossy 6-panel brochure from my congressman, Russ Carnahan (D-MO), touting his supposed efforts to end excessive Wall Street bonuses and other financial practices. It featured a lovely photo of Russ at a lectern with an American flag in the background. It made the congressman look really good, just as good campaign literature should.
But one thing really bugged me about this campaign literature. It noted (as required by law) that this expensively produced literature “was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.” Sure enough, instead of postage, there was merely the reproduced signature of Congressman Carnahan. It was sent via a congressman’s “franking privilege.”
“Franking” allows a representative in Congress to respond to his constituents’ letters to him (or her, as the case may be). Such an exchange of ideas is fully appropriate. With the volume of mail and other communications that a congressman receives, it would be unduly burdensome to require the congressman to pay out of his own pocket for responding to his constituents. I have no problem with the franking privilege when used in that manner, as originally intended.
But that’s not what this was. This was a mass-produced puff piece about the congressman, even if it did center on one particular issue.
Apologists for Carnahan will undoubtedly respond that all congressmen do this, regardless of party. While I haven’t polled the other 434 representatives (and the critics who would make that claim haven’t either), I fully expect that all incumbent congressmen seeking reelection probably do so. But that doesn’t make it right. None of Carnahan’s (or any other congressman’s) opponents, either in his own party primary or potential general election opponents from other parties, can send you campaign literature about themselves at your expense. This is an abuse of power, and the pervasiveness of the practice makes it worse, not better.
If I may borrow the title of Fox 2’s Elliot Davis’ fine investigative series, “You Paid for It.”