Bad Blood Over Health-Care Reform Spills Into Mailroom

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

The partisan debate over health-care reform has trickled down into one of the more arcane corners of the House -- the committee on free mail, otherwise known as the Franking Commission.

One of the perks of being a member of Congress is being able to send "franked" -- or free -- mail, as long as it relates to official business. Lawmakers use that ability to send newsletters and legislative updates to constituents. To ensure that the privilege is not used inappropriately, a majority of the bipartisan, six-member Franking Commission must approve each piece. Mail is blocked only on rare occasions.

But now the commission has gotten involved in the health-care fight, prohibiting several Republicans from mailing out a colorful, labyrinthine chart that purports to diagram Democrats' reform plan. The controversy was first reported by Roll Call.

The chart was produced by Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee and has become a popular visual aid on the minority side of the aisle as it attempts to convince the public that the Democrats' plan will be a confusing disaster. But Democrats have argued that the chart is an inaccurate representation of their health-care efforts, and for that reason, the three Democrats on the Franking Commission say the GOP cannot use it in official mail.

House guidelines say that in franked mail, "comments critical of policy or legislation should not be partisan, politicized or personalized." But what about information that is inaccurate, or -- arguably -- just misleading?

"We have never before censored anybody's presentation of facts this way," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) complained Friday in an interview.

Lungren, the top Republican on both the Franking Commission and the House Administration Committee, said the commission has never traditionally played a fact-checking role. He said that Democrats this year have sent out numerous pieces of franked mail touting the number of jobs created by the economic stimulus package, and that while Republicans might disagree with those numbers, they have not moved to block the mail.

"We let those things go by, even though we don't think it's true," Lungren said, adding that he knows of at least 15 Republicans who have asked to mail out copies of the health-care chart in question.

The controversy extends beyond the colorful chart. Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for House Administration Committee Republicans, said the Franking Commission told GOP lawmakers they could not refer to "government-run health care" in their mailings, and had to dub it "the public option" instead.

Democrats, led by Franking Commission Chairwoman Susan Davis (Calif.), say they are trying in good faith to negotiate a compromise with Republicans on the subject. If the impasse is not resolved, watch for the GOP to turn up the volume on the controversy this week.

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