It did not take long for Joe Holt to find what he was looking for in the trash at the Stevensville Post Office. He counted more than 60 fliers mailed at taxpayers' expense to promote a meeting sponsored by Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D-Md.).
Holt had a reason to rummage. He manages the campaign of one of Dyson's challengers, and as the deadline for Maryland congressional mailings draws closer, he was looking for evidence to spotlight Dyson's use of the congressional "frank," a widely used and often criticized perk of incumbency.
In this instance, an estimated 75,000 fliers were mailed, at a cost of $7,500 in postage, to tell 1st District veterans about a forum Saturday with Dyson and Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Even if the bulk of the mail ended up in the trash, Republican contender Luis Luna said the real aim of the message was achieved: getting Dyson's name before voters at no cost to the incumbent's campaign treasury.
"It is like junk mail from hell; it comes and it comes and it comes and there is no stopping it," said Luna, who has assembled Dyson's mailings for the year into a display for his campaign.
Tomorrow, 60 days before the September primary, is the last day for Maryland's eight members of Congress to send bulk mail at taxpayers' expense. (Because there is no primary before the November election, Northern Virginia's members of Congress have until September to complete their mailings.)
A survey of the Maryland offices showed that they are using the frank in varying degrees. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R) has used it less frequently than House of Representatives rules allow, according to information supplied by her office.
Others, such as Dyson and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D), are relying on the type of targeted mailings that have been criticized as a major loophole in House regulations on taxpayer-funded mail.
Nationally, the amount of mail from Congress has reached budget-busting proportions this year. After allocating $41 million, House members were on a pace to spend $79 million.
Unlike the Senate, which has enacted limits on what each member can spend on mail, the House has virtually unrestricted access to their constituents' mailboxes.
While they are kept to three district-wide mailings each year, such as newsletters or questionnaires, there is no limit on the number of individualized mailings they can send.
Among Maryland's congressional delegation, Dyson appears to make the most frequent use of his mailing privileges. So far this year, he has sent one newsletter throughout the district, and has another scheduled before tomorrow's deadline. He has mailed town meeting notices to about half the households in the district and advertised forums on issues of concern to veterans and federal employees. Targeted constituents received two letters on non-tidal wetlands regulations, one on family issues, and one on Social Security. Several hundred farmers in the district also received a letter that accompanied copies of the annual Agriculture Yearbook.
Opponents such as Luna and state Del. Barbara Osborn Kreamer (D-Harford), who is opposing Dyson in the primary, have argued that the mailings are an abuse of Dyson's incumbency, and offer self-promotion instead of information.
Dyson chief of staff Christopher Robinson, however, said the congressman has typically done fewer district-wide newsletters than House rules allow, and, in the case of targeted mailings, relies only on lists of constituents who have contacted the office on different issues.
A mailing on family issues, for example -- which Kreamer said was sent to women in the district to mask Dyson's stand against abortion -- went to only a few thousand voters. "It is basically good government," Robinson said. "It is keeping in touch with people."
Among the rest of the Maryland delegation, Rep. Tom McMillen (D) has sent two newsletters and a questionnaire this year to each of his district's 248,000 households, mailed thousands of public meeting notices, and mailed "tax tips" to the homes of 36,500 senior citizens, according to his office.
Hoyer also is targeting senior citizens with a mailing due out this week to about 30,000 households in his Prince George's County district, and sent an earlier mailing to 10,000 homes of federal employees. His district's 6,500 newly registered voters each got a letter, and each of the district's approximately 210,000 households got newsletters twice. Combined with 262,000 public meeting notices, Hoyer has sent more than 700,000 pieces of mail this year at public expense.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) has sent one newsletter to 284,000 homes in her Montgomery County district, and 395,000 notices for meetings on higher education and the census.
Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D) sent a questionnaire to 240,000 households in February, then later sent the results. An announcement of August public meetings is due in the mail soon.