House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) has launched an aggressive mail campaign -- at taxpayer expense -- to promote the environmental work of President Bush and a few vulnerable committee members in recent months.
This month Pombo mailed fliers to 100,000 residents in Minnesota, Wisconsin and a few western states touting the president's push for snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. Over the past year, he has sent similar fliers promoting the work of two western Republicans in competitive seats, along with a couple of mailings praising conservative California Democrats.
The flurry of federally funded mailings, along with Pombo's recent decision to give his committee staff a month's paid vacation right before the election, has angered several House Democrats, who question whether he is misusing taxpayer funds.
"It's a dumb political move that only shows taxpayers how Republicans in the House use official resources to campaign for George Bush," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), whose constituent, Lois Reis, a retiree, alerted her to the mailing last week. "It's another example of ignoring ethics," McCollum said.
Reis said in an interview it was "veiled campaign literature for George Bush." A registered independent, Reis said of Pombo, "I never heard of him. I thought, he can't be from Minnesota."
Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said the snowmobile flier, along with the other mailings, was part of a broader effort to reach Americans affected by federal land policies. In Pombo's bid to become chairman two years ago, "he said one of the things we need to do is communicate better with the folks who matter most, which are rural Americans on the ground," Kennedy said. "Democrats are seizing on an opportunity to paint a perception of something nefarious when there's nothing nefarious."
While individual lawmakers can use their office funds to send mail to their constituents up until 90 days of an election, committees can send fliers anywhere in the United States without an election-year cutoff. Unlike lawmakers' offices, panels do not have to submit their mailings for approval by the House Administration Committee to ensure they comply with official business.
That committee's GOP staff director approved the snowmobile flier in advance, according to the panel's spokesman, Brian Walsh, though Democrats did not see it.
The 338-word snowmobile flier mentions Bush five times, saying on its front, "The House Resources Committee is working with President Bush to ensure that snowmobilers have access to our National Parks and recreation areas. You can rest assured that the House Resources Committee and the Bush Administration are working together to protect your right to ride."
Pombo has requested more money for official postage than any other chairman, according to House records. He asked for $250,000 last year and this year, and received $50,000 each session. By contrast, before 2003 no committee spent more than $8,000 a year on postage.
In addition to the snowmobile flier, Pombo has sent mailings praising the work of GOP Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Steve Pearce (N.M.), both of whom are in tight races, as well as to the constituents of Reps. Joe Baca and Dennis Cardoza, both Democrats from California who have sided with the chairman on key committee votes.
Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.) -- who advises other Democrats on using official resources -- tried in July to limit mass mailings from committees, which never occurred during election blackout periods before 2003. But his motion to limit committee postage to $25,000 a year failed 163 to 205, on a largely party-line vote.
"This is an unprecedented politicization of the budgets of the committees," said Sherman, who introduced legislation last week to prohibit committee mass mailings within 90 days of an election and more than 1,000 mailings from going to any one district.
Pombo has also irked Democrats by giving his staff an extra month of paid leave before the Nov. 2 election, a policy first reported in the Hill newspaper last week. Staff members usually get two to three weeks annual vacation.
Sherman said the paid leave, coupled with the recent mailings, represented a "combined unprecedented crescendo of politicization."
Kennedy said Pombo wanted to "reward a loyal hardworking staff," though he added, "I would guess that a few of our staffers might help in a 72-hour final [campaign] push, along with hundreds of others of staffers from both sides of the aisle."
While other lawmakers have allowed their staffs to take time off -- Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has about a dozen staffers working in House races across the country over the next month -- those aides are taking unpaid leave or regular vacation days.