Lee and Rose Epstein of New York City liked the politics of Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) enough to send him a campaign donation. He wasn't their man in Washington. In fact, his district was about as far from the Epsteins as one could get and still be in the continental United States.

Now the Epsteins are wondering if getting on Packwood's mailing list was such a good idea.

Since the Epsteins made their donation, Packwood has inundated them with junk mail sent at taxpayers' expense. And he has hit them up for another campaign contribution.

Lawmakers, including Packwood, will adamantly deny they use their free congressional mailing or "franking" privileges to campaign. But the attention Packwood has focused on a couple who can't vote for him, but can give him money, shows that politicians are skating close to the edge.

The franking perk allows members of Congress to send reams of mail with a signature instead of a stamp, and the taxpayers pick up the tab. The excuse is that constituents wouldn't know the straight scoop out of Washington if they didn't get it from their senator or representative.

But the Epsteins aren't Packwood's constituents. And Packwood isn't the only member of Congress to deluge them with franked mail. The Epsteins have contributed money to several members of Congress. They are particularly generous to those who push for strong U.S.-Israeli ties.

The thanks they get come in form letters and news reports from lawmakers bragging about their support for Israel, their efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews and their fight against antisemitism.

The Epstein's pen pals include Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

Lee Epstein says their correspondence with him is "an abuse of the government frank." Some use the letters to pat themselves on the back, and then comes the follow-up letter from the lawmaker's campaign machine -- that one with a stamp.

Packwood's office told our associate Scott Sleek that the senator's congressional staff and his campaign staff are separate operations, and that the congressional staff doesn't make a habit of sending franked constituent mail to out-of-state contributors. They said if someone asks to be kept informed on an issue that person would go on Packwood's mailing list. But the Epsteins didn't ask.

The franking privilege masquerades as a communications tool, but it is a self-serving freebie that members of Congress manipulate for their reelection campaigns.

Our recent columns on abuses of the franking privilege brought a bundle of mail from readers. One newspaper in Illinois sent all of the press releases it had received from Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, taped together like a roll of toilet paper. All of it was paid for by the taxpayers.

One reader wrote to complain that her dead husband still got mail from his senator. Another complained that her 8-year-old son and her dog ended up on her representative's mailing list.

Congress is expected this year to top the 1988 record spending spree of $77 million on taxpayer-financed mass mailings.