An argument is going on in the Senate over the use of free postage -- i.e., the frank -- for the mass mailing of newsletters home. The charge is that these are political documents, self-promoting campaign literature, by and large, that shouldn't be mailed at the taxpayers' expense. The response is: "What, us political? Heaven forfend!" As a measure of the gravity and credibility with which the Senate has over the years grappled with this issue, we offer you its own rules on how to keep a newsletter from being a political, self- promoting document. For there are in fact rules governing both the content and the appearance of these mailings, and since you would never believe us if we described them to you, we are going to have to quote from them at some length, but we think you will not be sorry that we did.

Begin here. Before June of 1979 a rule was in effect that sought to limit the number of times a senator could use the word "I" per page in a franked newsletter. This is what the relevant publication of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics said on the subject:

"The type in which the Senator's name appears anywhere in a newsletter, other than on the masthead, may not exceed 1/4i in height.

"Personal references to a Senator including, but not limited to, the use of a Senator's name and personal references such as 'I,' 'my,' or 'he' or 'the Senator' may not appear in a newsletter or other mass mailing more than five times per page." It added a warning against funny business: "The omission of a personal pronoun which results in an ungrammatical sentence, the use of an implied subject, or the use of other pronouns which in their context refer to the Member do not eliminate a personal reference."

A lot of problems will spring to mind right away about this. For instance, what about our own preferred locution, the editorial "we"? Should a "we" have counted as, say, two "I's" or only as a half or other fraction of one, depending on how many "I's" were included in the "we"? You think we are being frivolous. In fact, Sen. Daniel Moynihan ran afoul of the rules on precisely this point, his use of the term "we New Yorkers" being temporarily taken as one senatorial "I" rather than as millions of constituent "you's," and that put him over the "I" limit and outside the law. Partly as a result of this landmark case, the rule was revised.

Now the personal-reference pronouns are not limited, but personal reference by use of the Senator's name is; the permissible references per page has been raised from five to eight, and, as with your taxes, averaging is permitted. Thus: "in a two-page newsletter, page one could contain ten 'personal references,' and page two could contain five 'personal references,' as long as, taken together, they would not exceed sixteen -- an average of eight per page." In addition, the revised rule helpfully points out that "the use of a Senator's name, preceded by the word 'Senator,' as in 'Senator Smith,' or 'Senator John Smith,' constitutes only one 'personal reference.' strictures on the number of photographs a senator may include, one picture, after all, presumably being worth a thousand personal references. Thus, no more than four photos of the senator in a single newsletter, not counting the masthead, and no photos at all "larger than 12 square inches."

Given your shameless criminal mind, you will probably by now have thought of several ways of eluding these restrictions, such as, for example, by artificially increasing the number of pages. So evidently did the senators, since the printed regs warn sternly against what we have come to think of as the origami dodge: "For the purposes of the limitation on personally phrased references to the Senator, a 'page' is each side of an 8 1/2" X 11" or 8 1/2" X 14" sheet of paper, irrespective of the number of folds utilized in the design of the matter mailed. Thus, if a newsletter is on a legal-size sheet of paper and has print on both sides, it would be a two-page newsletter, even if the paper were folded to resemble a four page pamphlet." So much for that one.

Some spoilsports don't think name-counts and the rest keep the mass-mailed newsletters from being campaign documents. Sens. Pete Wilson, John Danforth, David Boren and Charles Mathias are pushing legislation that would make newsletters ineligible for the frank. Sen. Mathias notes, among other things, the way in which the costs of such mailings tend to skyrocket in election years. Periodic efforts to do something about this have been met with much complaint in the Senate, where there sometimes seems to be less interest in trimming the costs than in trying to go to multicolored printings like the House newsletters have. In case you wondered what the current cost of the Senate mass mailings is (with their preponderance of carefully modulated, eight-personal-references- only-to-a-page missives), the bill comes to around $62 million a year. Taken together with the House mailings, the annual tab is about $150 million. Feel better now?