From the earliest days of the Republic, members of Congress have enjoyed a franking privilege -- that is, a privilege to send correspondence "postage-free" to their constituents.
The postage is not really free. Rather, Congress' postage is paid by a congressional appropriation of tax dollars. The privilege was given to ensure that members of Congress would have the ability to respond to the inquiries, opinions and requests of their constituents.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the privilege has been seriously abused. In unsolicited "newsletters" reporting the activities of a senator or congressman, too often the line between information and propaganda has been crossed. In the process, taxpayers have been stuck with substantial costs and have become unsuspecting contributors to Rep. Blank's reelection campaign.
Consider the following: two years ago, during our last election year, Congress' postage bill ran to $111 million. Since then, it has soared to $146 million. Just how much money is Congress spending on self-promotion? That $146 million is roughly equivalent to all the federal income tax dollars collected in a city the size of Long Beach or Oakland, Calif.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that all the letters that pour out of Capitol Hill offices add up to political junk mail. Most congressional offices make a great effort to answer carefully and thoughtfully thousands of constituent requests each week. I welcome the opportunity to respond to citizens who have a position to state, a question to pose, a bureaucratic knot to unravel. Such communication is essential to the functioning of representative democracy, as the Founding Fathers recognized in granting Congress the privilege of sending letters under the frank.
But the Founding Fathers never envisioned the congressional "newsletter" or how the franking privilege might be and has been abused. Right now, senators spend less than 5 percent of their postage budget on responses to constituent letters. They spend four times as much in notifying constituents of upcoming "town meetings." That means at least 75 percent of that $146 million goes for newsletters -- unsolicited mailings that purport to inform the reader and that more often serve to establish personal contact with the voter.
Even if a newsletter were purely informational and entirely free of any self-promotion by the sending member of Congress, it compares very poorly with other forms of communication on a cost-effective basis. For instance, at virtually no cost to taxpayers, Senate proceedings are now being broadcast by radio and will soon be televised. News services continue to report our activities. And there are all those letters -- 15,000 or so each week in my office alone -- that demand and deserve a thoughtful reply. Literally thousands of informational pamphlets are sent daily by a host of federal agencies. The people, in short, are not dependent for information on costly legislative newsletters.
We live in a time of austerity. A time when there are many things we might like to have, but cannot in good conscience afford. A time when everyone in government is straining to meet the stringent budget requirements set forth in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill. I voted for that fiscal straitjacket to restrain run- away spending. And now I think it's up to Congress itself to set an example.
At a time when we find ourselves forced to make cuts in health care and medical research, in drug enforcement, meals for senior citizens, education and a host of vital activites, I cannot in good conscience vote a blank check for congressional self-promotion. The time has come to demonstrate to those who work hard to make ends meet, and who expect their government to show a little respect for their hard- earned dollars, that Washington is sensitive to their needs.
To this end I have introduced legislation that would eliminate funding for congressional newsletters. This would in no way limit the ability of congressmen and senators to respond to the mail that is sent to them. Nor would it curtail notices of town meetings. What it would abolish are all those mailings that have not been solicited -- those too often conspicuous mainly for personal advertising, which often wind up in the trash, unwanted, unread, a costly waste of taxpayers' money.
There is a principle at stake, one that can't be measured in dollars and cents. Quite simply, it's a question of fairness. If Americans are being asked to accept reductions in government service, then how on earth can we who hold office go on about our business as usual, shaking the public money tree to help ensure our reelection?
This is one piece of mail that belongs in the dead letter box.