In the first 21 months of the 101st Congress, Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) sent nine newsletters to all 278,000 postal patron households in his district and 19 other mass mailings at first-class rates to targeted constituent groups, including senior citizens and federal employees.

The cost to taxpayers for these more than 3 million pieces of Parris "franked" mail can only be estimated, conservatively, at about $415,000. That is because under current law and House rules, Parris and his colleagues do not have to keep records of their mailings or their cost.

The only requirement is for House members to file with the House Franking Commission copies of newsletters and "town meeting" notices sent to postal patron addresses.

Unlike those of most House members, details of Parris's first-class mailings can be pieced together because of reports he filed with the Clerk of the House on the cost of printing all his newsletters, not just the ones mass-mailed to postal patron addresses.

The House rules on franked mail may change this week, perhaps as early as today, when the House votes on the legislative branch appropriations bill. It contains $92 million for House mailings -- $33 million to pay for this election year's mail overrun and $59 million for the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Members will be faced with plans to establish for the first time in the House specific dollar limits for each member's official mail and a requirement that each report expenditures publicly. The Senate installed that system last year.

The private National Taxpayers Union put Parris among the top House users of postal patron mail in 1989, but Mark Strand, Parris's administrative assistant, said he did not think Parris's volume of postal patron and first-class mailings was "particularly different from other {House} offices."

Strand said other congressional offices print targeted newsletters on computers in their offices and, as a result, their franked, first-class mail "costs are hard to find." They "have {high-speed} printers that can generate mass mail, but that doesn't show up" in expense reports, Strand said. "The congressman does not feel the need to do that," he added.

The vast majority of Parris's mailings, Strand said, are what he called "constituent communications." Critics of the franking system call them just another way for incumbents to campaign.

"We are totally within the rules of the House," Strand said. "We play by rules the Democrats {who control the House} set."

Because there is strong Democratic and Republican opposition to changes in handling House franked mail, Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, is proposing that the allowance for each member's official mailings be set fairly high. It works out to a level about equal to what Parris, one of the major mailers in the House, has been spending.

Fazio's formula would give each member a dollar amount equal to three first-class, 25-cent mailings to each postal patron household and post office box in the district. For Parris, that would amount to $208,500 per year or $417,000 for a term -- $2,000 more than the estimate of his mailing costs during this Congress.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), ranking GOP member on the subcommittee, will propose a similar plan but with an allocation formula that would not include post office box holders and thus give each member about 25 percent less money each year.

If the Republican and Democratic members who want mailing changes refuse to agree on the Lewis or Fazio plan or something in between, the system could remain unchanged. House aides said yesterday that Fazio and Lewis were trying to reach a compromise.

Strand pointed out that Parris voted last year to cut postal patron mass mailings from six to three annually, and that Parris would support the effort to establish a mailing account in each office to make expenses easy to trace.

"We're all for some sort of accountability," Strand said. "We'll take a cut if that reduces the power of incumbency. Most incumbents are Democrats, and we don't want to be in the minority forever."

Parris's four-page newsletters, six sent to all postal patron households in his Northern Virginia district in 1989 and three this year, stress his legislative activities. Parris used his official office expense account to pay $5,100 or more for the printing of each postal patron newsletter, according to Clerk of the House reports.

Those same reports show that Parris paid from $743 to $2,100 on 19 occasions since February 1989 for printing single- and multipage newsletters that were mailed to special groups in the district.

Last January, for example, his office paid PMR Printing Co. for the Dec. 29, 1989, printing of a postal patron newsletter ($5,329); a special report on drugs ($2,105); a report for federal employees ($743); a report to older Americans ($1,885); and a transportation report ($1,069).

Strand said targeted mailings, to a federal employees list of "about 15,000" people in the district, are done on a "pretty regular" basis. That list, like others maintained by the office, is put together from people who have written to Parris's office.

Senior citizens total about 40,000 in the district, Strand said. The Clerk of the House reports show that Parris on several occasions has purchased lists or mailing labels for senior citizens from the Republican Party of Virginia. Last February, for example, Parris reported paying $1,741.70 from his office account for the printing of a seniors tax newsletter and $1,111.99 to the state party for a "mailing list for senior tax newsletter."

The newsletter, a reprint of material from an Internal Revenue Service guide for older Americans, carried a personal greeting on the front page from Parris.