Fervent budget-cutters still spend on mass communication

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) among the legislators who spent more than $50,000 on mailings and other mass communications in the first quarter of 2011. That figure, contained in House documents, is incorrect, according to Cardoza’s office. It said his actual expenditures were about $3,000 for the quarter.

They are among the House’s fervent budget-cutters: 13 legislators who have said they won’t raise the debt ceiling without a promise to slash government spending.

But these 13 also hold another designation. They have become, unwittingly, a symbol of the very truth that often stymies budget-cutting: Every dollar of federal spending is special to somebody.

In the first three months of 2011, these 12 Republicans and one Democrat were among the members of Congress who spent the most taxpayer money on fliers, brochures, radio ads, e-mails and automated phone calls to constituents.

Each spent more than $50,000 on these communications, more than six times the average in Congress. In most cases, the mailings carried smiling pictures of the congressmen and messages about their work on the Hill.

Among the 13, many this week defended their expenditures. Even as they called for the federal government to make painful cutbacks, several said it would be too much to reduce their messages to folks at home.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), for instance, voted against a proposal to raise the federal debt ceiling without spending reductions attached. Since then, Buchanan has said that “the time is now for Washington to make the tough choices.”

In the first quarter of 2011, House records show, Buchanan spent $142,198 on mailings and other means of mass communication.

That was more than any other representative, and about 19 times the average expenditure of $7,500. Among his colleagues, 209 representatives got by without spending any money in that quarter, according to House records.

Buchanan’s staff said the money was spent on, among other things, a full-color mailing that went out across his district. One side was emblazoned with Buchanan’s picture, against a backdrop of the Capitol dome and the Constitution. The other showed Buchanan shaking hands with veterans.

It also included a survey on political issues and a simulated handwritten note from Buchanan: “Please share your thoughts with me, because I work for you! Vern.”

Does Buchanan believe that this kind of mailing is worth taxpayer money?

“We reach out . . . to our constituents and ask them if they think that we’re reaching out too much,” said Max Goodman, a spokesman for Buchanan. “And the vast majority say [it’s] just the right amount. If that’s the case, then we’re going to keep doing it.”

The details of this spending are in the House’s quarterly financial statement, which provided the first portrait of how the new GOP majority spends money on itself.

The House’s total expenditures — on everything from office furniture to auto mileage and staff salaries — came in at $336 million for the quarter. That was less than was typically spent in a quarter during 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled the House.

But only slightly: The difference was 0.63 percent.

The spending on mass mailings and other forms of mass communication is a fraction of that total. But it has been singled out by good-government groups, which believe that legislators use the mailings, in particular, to promote themselves at taxpayer expense.

“Many of those constituents already got acquainted — for better or worse — with their new lawmakers months before on the campaign trail, and now they’re paying for the second time around with their own tax dollars,” Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union wrote in an e-mail. “That may not be the most politically solid foot to start off with for those elected on promises to shake up business as usual in Washington.”

The money for mailings and other communications comes out of an allowance given to every member. Earlier this year, the GOP-led House voted to reduce that overall allowance by 5 percent.

But Sepp and other activists say that if legislators spent less on mailings and other communications, they could return more cash to the Treasury.

House records show that in the first quarter of 2011, 20 legislators spent more than $50,000 on these communications. Of them, two have left the House. Four, all Democrats, voted this spring to raise the debt limit without demanding spending cuts.

The 13 others on the list all voted not to raise the debt ceiling without conditions attached. The one Democrat on the list was Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (N.Y.), who spent $55,640. A spokesman for Bishop said that he spent a substantially lower amount, less than $5,000, in the second quarter of 2011. Full statistics on that quarter are not expected to be released by the House until next month.

In addition, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), who also voted against raising the debt ceiling without conditions, was listed by the House as having spent $57,494. However, on Friday a spokeswoman said that number was in error, and the real figure was much lower: about $3,000.

At the time, many in the group of 13 said it was time for a reappraisal of how Washington spends money.

“Very difficult choices have to be made about what government can and cannot pay for,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R), a freshman from New York.

In the first quarter of 2011, he spent $69,439 on mass communication, more than 430 other legislators.

“Tom’s top priority for our office is to be accessible to our constituents,” said Tim Kolpien, a spokesman for Reed, in a statement. He said that the money paid for a mailer to introduce the new congressman to his constituents and for cards alerting constituents to town hall meetings. Those cards included a smiling picture of Reed.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R), in Congress since 1989, has said that “the American people are demanding . . . real spending reforms, and an end to business as usual.” In the first quarter of 2011, he spent $67,420 on mailings and other communications.

A spokesman for Stearns said mailings were necessary to alert constituents about town hall meetings. But they didn’t do just that: One mailer listed the meetings but spent far more space describing Stearns’s activities in Congress.

There was also a picture.

Some of the 13 said that — even as they spent thousands on communications — they had sought to be as frugal as possible. Freshman Rep. Andrew Harris (R-Md.) said his largely rural district on the Eastern Shore included many residents without e-mail. To introduce himself and let residents know about his offices, he sent one mailing to 188,000 households.

“Two-color mailing, not full color,” Harris said in a telephone interview. “It is not a full-color, campaign-style brochure. I don’t think that’s an appropriate use of dollars.”

And Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.), another freshman, spent $64,292 in the first quarter of 2011, which ranked him seventh among 435 members. But Nugent’s staff said his intention was to save money in the long run.

“For years, elected officials have relied on mailers like this to communicate with local residents,” Nugent wrote on the card. “Frankly, it’s inefficient and it costs you money.” He asked for e-mail addresses instead and got 7,000 back.

But even as he disparaged this congressional tradition, Nugent included a picture. And it was in color.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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