Each election cycle, House members have sent 50 percent to 75 percent more "franked" mail than in non-election years, giving rise to criticism that the mailings have become just another way for an incumbent to convey his campaign message.

Now, Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who as chairman of the House Appropriations legislative subcommittee has adroitly maneuvered for two years to protect the unfettered use of such mail, appears ready to propose what he delicately calls "restraints."

With the House expected to exceed its official mail appropriation this election year by up to $44 million, almost double the spending that had been approved, Fazio said he did not know how to curb use of the frank other than "putting a cap on each member."

In an interview, Fazio emphasized that he was "not comfortable" with the idea because of its "inequities." The difficulty, he said, would be in devising how much money each House member should receive to pay for mailings to constituents. "I don't know what number would satisfy people," he noted.

Fazio said he had met last week with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and that he would be meeting with Democrats and Republicans in coming weeks to put a proposal together as part of the fiscal 1991 legislative spending bill that will be marked up this summer.

The Senate, unlike the House, has since 1987 publicly disclosed each member's mailing expenses and last year put individual limits on members. One result is that senators are sending out mail under their signature -- the so-called frank -- at a rate that will bring them in below the amount appropriated.

For the past two years, the Senate has unsuccessfully tried to get the House to adopt a similar system, but has had to settle for having separate funds approved for each body this year.

Fazio's intention to move to a version of the Senate reporting system follows the failure last week, in a late night House session, of a maneuver involving the $4.3 billion supplemental appropriations bill. President Bush signed the bill, which carried provisions for foreign aid and several domestic programs, over the weekend.

While the bill was being considered, Fazio took a Senate amendment that allowed allocation of unspent Senate funds to be used for renovation work in the Senate side of the Capitol and made it applicable to unspent House money for renovation work on the House side. Fazio added that the funds could be used "for other purposes."

Earlier in the month, Fazio had told House-Senate conferees that he was thinking of using the unspent House money from 1988 and 1989, which totaled $23.9 million, to help pay for the House's growing mail deficit. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), a member of the conference, put out a news release calling attention to Fazio's plan, but nothing happened until the matter was raised on the House floor on the evening of May 24.

Fazio said he had no intention of raising the matter until the Senate amendment came along. He said two years ago the House had allowed the Senate to cover its mailing deficit with a similar proposal, "and we did not call attention to it."

He added that he saw an advantage in using money "that otherwise would revert to the {U.S.} Treasury as unexpended," while at the same time exploring changes in the use of the frank.

When the amendment came up on the floor, however, House Republicans took issue.

Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said, "It is obvious that these deficits {in the House official mailing budget} and these 'Frankingsteins' will hound us until we get real reform in the mailing regulations which govern the members of the House."

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the ranking Republican on Fazio's legislative appropriations subcommittee, talked about how members are using computers for mail that is "almost entirely self-generated by our offices."

"The reality," Lewis said, "is that the computer systems are used as an incumbency reelection device, and the reality is that the minority is in a considerable minority, and we do not like it."

Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), who has been an opponent of House perks for years, pointed out that "in even-numbered years, we do not have to tell our constituents how much they need us, and how badly they need to see our names in their mailboxes. It is only in the election years that we bomb them with first-class mail, with postal-patron mail, and with town meeting notices."

Fazio predicted that House members would continue to mail, despite the deficit they will run up, and that eventually the U.S. Postal Service will have to be reimbursed for delivering the mailings.