“Franking” is the term used for official newsletters that members of Congress send to constituents. Intended as a means to keep the public informed on legislative matters, the practice is sometimes abused and taxpayer dollars wasted on elaborate, glossy, campaign-style mail pieces.
Democratic congressional challengers are criticizing House Republicans, including Tim Murphy (R-Allegheny), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks) and Jim Gerlach (R-Chester), for voting down a motion to recommit H.R. 5882, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act of FY 2013 – introduced as an effort to cut the franking budget.
Per campaign committee norms, Democratic candidates for Congress sent out one-size-fits-all press releases in which the names of Murphy, Fitzpatrick and Gerlach were each separately inserted into text asserting that each congressman “is looking out for himself again instead of fighting for the middle class.”
“It is unconscionable to refuse to reign in Congress’ lavish spending on taxpayer funded campaign-style mail, rather than keep our promise of Medicare and veterans’ benefits. This is exactly why Americans are so fed up with Washington – our Congress has the wrong priorities,” said Dem hopeful Kathy Boockvar, running against Fitzpatrick.
“Congressman Gerlach voted to drastically cut Medicare, but refused to cut taxpayer funded glossy campaign-style mailers – which he spent more than $123,000 on just last year. That’s exactly the kind of hypocrisy that got us into this mess,” said another congressional challenger, Manan Trivedi.
“Washington is broken and Congressman Murphy is part of the problem. We must cut spending and Congress should start with itself,” said candidate Larry Maggi.
The crux of the message being spun by congressional candidates is this: politicians in Washington would rather spend taxpayer dollars on “glossy campaign-style mail” than on measures to support the lower and middle classes.
Republicans say that the motion to recommit was an effort to delay; making any change to the bill would force it back to committee and jam up the legislative process. It’s a tactic commonly used by the party in the minority (e.g. the no Viagra for sex offenders amendment the GOP offered during the health care debate in 2010).
After Boockvar’s camp criticized him for spending $157,670.97 on franking, Fitzpatrick Campaign Manager Faith Bender said the Congressman has exercised fiscal discipline in his own office.
“Congressman Fitzpatrick returned nearly $160,000 to taxpayers, or over 10 percent of his own office budget, while responding to over 100,000 constituents,” she said.
“Jim Gerlach voted on Thursday to freeze the annual allowances that all House members, Republicans and Democrats, receive for franked mail, staff salaries and other office expenses,” said spokesman Kori Walter. “He keeps his own expenses low enough that last year he returned more than $150,000 of his unspent office allowance to the taxpayers.”
Gerlach’s camp also emphasized that the Legislative Appropriations Budget does not specify a dollar amount to be spent on franking. They said that each representative receives a set number of dollars to pay for annual expenses, which include staff, office rental, office supplies, travel, a legislative website, etc., and that it is then up to their discretion how to spend it.
Furthermore, the official franking figures cited by the challengers include mailers and also routine correspondence with constituents (replies to letters, etc).
Maggi said Murphy spent $1,526,827.93 on campaign-style mailers since 2003. Susan Mosychuk, Murphy’s Chief of Staff, responded with an accusation of her own.
“Sheriff Larry Maggi had no problem buying self-promotional coloring books and pencils with taxpayers dollars to campaign for County Commissioner, but bellyaches about Congressman Murphy delivering congressional newsletters to his constituents, under guidance and approval of the bipartisan Franking Commission, about key votes and issues in Congress?”
The official vote on the motion to recommit H.R. 5882 was 101 for (100 Democrats and 1 Republican) for, 9 Democrats and 230 Republicans against. PA’s delegation voted along party lines except Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Allegheny).