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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Franking Privilege: Mass Mailings and Mass Communications in the House, 1997-2012

Matthew Eric Glassman
Analyst on the Congress

Despite significant reductions in congressional mail postage costs over the past 25 years, critics continue to raise concerns that the franking privilege is both financially wasteful and gives an unfair advantage to incumbents in congressional elections. In particular, mass mailings have come under increased scrutiny as critics argue that the vast majority of franked mail is unsolicited and, in effect, publicly funded campaign literature.

This report provides an analysis of House Member mass mailings (1997-2008, 2012) and mass communications (2009-2012). A mass mailing is defined by statute as a franked mailing of 500 or more substantially similar pieces of unsolicited mail sent in the same session of Congress. Mass communications include all unsolicited mailings or communications of substantially identical content distributed to 500 or more persons, regardless of media. Examples of mass communications include radio, television, newspaper, and Internet advertisements; automated phone calls; mass facsimiles; and mass emails distributed to a non-subscriber e-mailing list.

Between 1997 and 2008, House Members sent 1.34 billion pieces of mass mail at a total postage cost of $224.5 million, producing a calendar-year average of 111.6 million pieces of mass mail costing an average of $18.7 million (Table 1). Most Representatives sent mass mailings. During each calendar year 1997-2008, an average of 84% of House Members sent at least one mass mailing. Among Members who sent at least one mass mailing, the average annual number of pieces of mail sent by a Member was 303,270 at a postage cost of $50,834.

Although the annual number of pieces of mail sent remained relatively constant between 1997 and 2008, significant quarterly variations occurred within each Congress (Figure 1). These expenditures continue a historical pattern of Congress spending less on official mail costs during non-election years than during election years (Table 3). However, analysis of quarterly data on Member mass mailing costs indicates that, due to the structure of the fiscal year calendar, comparisons of election-year and non-election-year mailing data tend to overstate the effect of pre-election increases in mail costs, since they also capture the effect of a large spike in mass mailings from the fourth quarter of the previous calendar year.

At the direction of the Committee on House Administration, in January 2009, the House began reporting the volume and cost of individual mass communications instead of only mass mailings. Between 2009 and 2011, House Members sent 1.27 billion pieces of mass communication at a total cost of $131.5 million, producing a calendar-year average of 573.1 million pieces of mass communication costing an average of $43.8 million (Table 2). During 2009 and 2010, an annual average of 92% of House Members sent at least one mass communication.

Beginning with the second quarter of calendar year 2011, the House began separately reporting the volume and cost of both mass mailings and mass communications. House Members sent 1.11 billion pieces of mass communication in 2012, at a total cost of $7.4 million, and 61.4 million pieces of mass mail, at a cost of $22.9 million.

See also CRS Report RL34188, Congressional Official Mail Costs; CRS Report RS22771, Congressional Franking Privilege: Background and Recent Legislation; and CRS Report RL34274, Franking Privilege: Historical Development and Options for Change.

Date of Report: June 11, 2013
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: RL34458
Price: $29.95

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