The allegation is the latest partisan volley to play out on the six-member, bipartisan Franking Commission, which oversees the free mail that lawmakers are allowed to send to constituents.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday, five Democrats charge that approval of their mailings has been delayed. The lawmakers said that in some cases Republican staff members on the commission have suggested revisions that the Democrats say “are inconsistent with previous approvals and, in fact, disallow specific statements and language that have been approved in previous submissions.”
“Given this abrupt and inconsistent new interpretation of the established Franking Guidelines, we must surmise that there is a deliberate, strategic attempt to censor any Member communication that echoes the widespread public criticism of the Republican Plan for Medicare,” the members wrote.
Lawmakers typically are able to send mail to their constituents for free as long as it is approved by the franking panel. House rules governing the use of such mail state that “comments critical of policy or legislation that are political, partisan or personalized are not frankable.”
Although the approval of mailings is usually routine, partisan fights over contentious issues have roiled the panel before, such as two years ago during the debate over health-care reform.
At that time, House Democrats blocked Republicans from including in their mailers a convoluted chart that Republicans said represented the new changes that the health-care law would trigger. Democrats on the panel prohibited Republicans from using the phrases “government-run health care,” “President Obama’s health-care law” and similar references in their mailings, according to documents provided by committee Republicans.
This time around, it’s Republicans who are trying to block the use of certain language, Democrats charge.
According to a draft of a mailer for Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) provided by Democrats on the House Administration Committee, Republicans have barred Democrats from referring to the House GOP budget as “the Ryan plan”; have struck out any language describing the plan as a “voucher system” and replaced it with “premium support system”; and have changed any reference to a “privatized system” to refer to a “government program with support from private insurance companies.”
Draft mailers saying that the Republican plan would “end Medicare” have been revised to read “change Medicare,” and in references to the potential effects of the plan on seniors, such as reopening the prescription drug doughnut hole, the word “would” has been changed to “could.”
Connolly, one of the five Democrats who signed the letter to Boehner, charged that the move had “a menacingly Orwellian quality to it.” He noted that the Franking Commission had previously approved mailers with similar language before Democrats won last month’s special election in New York’s 26th District, a race that in its final weeks came to center on Medicare.
“So, what in the world changed?” Connolly asked in an interview Tuesday night. “What changed? Well, what changed was an election. So now we’re in the thought police with the majority side of the aisle.”
Documents provided by committee Democrats showed that in mid-May, the panel approved a mailing for Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) that criticized the Republican budget more strongly than some of the mail now under scrutiny. The Cuellar mailer features a tombstone with the words “RIP Medicare.” It refers to “cuts to Medicare benefits for today’s seniors” and says that “Budget Chairman Ryan’s plan will end Medicare as we know it.”
Salley Wood, spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Administration Committee, said that Democrats “are apparently suffering from selective memory.”
“All frankable materials must receive bipartisan support for approval,” Wood said in a statement. “Given the hyper-partisan tone of several of the pieces the commission has received for review and the misrepresentation of the facts, it’s clear why they haven’t been approved.”
Wood pointed to a letter sent in August 2009 by the franking panel’s then-chairwoman, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), to the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). Davis wrote that “content sent using taxpayer funds, shall not – by intention or implication – misrepresent the facts and circumstances pertaining to the legislation.”
“Not only did they reject and censor content critical of their health care legislation, this letter from Davis states that previously approved content does not set a precedent and that content must not misrepresent the facts,” Wood said.
Democrats whose mail has been rejected argue that rather than misrepresenting the facts, they’re trying to clarify things for voters.
“I am entitled to explain to my voters why I voted no on the Ryan budget and ... refer to it as that,” Connolly said. “There’s nothing partisan in that.”
The letter to Boehner was signed by Connolly and Reps. Timothy Bishop (N.Y.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Joe Courtney (Conn.) and Ed Perlmutter (Colo.).
The text of the letter is below.
June 14, 2011
The Honorable John Boehner
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
United States Capitol, H-232
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Mr. Speaker:
We are writing to you today over a matter of utmost importance. It involves the Franking Commission’s failure to approve Member communications in a credible and consistent way. This partisan, political application of current Franking guidelines has directly impeded our ability to share important, life-changing information with our constituents and represents a grave disservice to the American people.
Over the last several weeks, this Congress has been actively engaged in a fervent, often divisive debate over the future of the Medicare system. Given the magnitude of proposed changes, we have engaged in aggressive efforts to educate our constituents on the potential impact and have encouraged them to express their viewpoint on this issue. However, these efforts have recently been hindered by the failure of the Franking Commission (specifically the Republican staff) to approve mass communications in a timely and consistent manner.
We are still awaiting approval on informational mailers on Medicare that were submitted well within the customary approval timeline. Suggested revisions that we have received from the Republican staff are inconsistent with previous approvals and, in fact, disallow specific statements and language that have been approved in previous submissions.
Given this abrupt and inconsistent new interpretation of the established Franking Guidelines, we must surmise that there is a deliberate, strategic attempt to censor any Member communication that echoes the widespread public criticism of the Republican Plan for Medicare.
The documentation in question uses terminology and phrases that have been approved in previous documents. The rising lack of popularity of the House Republican Plan for Medicare hardly justifies the use of the Franking Commission to obstruct legitimate communication between Members and the Americans that we serve. This politically motivated censorship undermines our ability to execute one of our primary roles and diminishes the credibility of this institution. To that end, we ask, in the strongest possible terms, that you urge the Franking Commission to allow for “a robust debate in an open process that allows you to represent your constituents – to make your case, offer alternatives and to be heard,” as you promised when you assumed the Speaker’s Gavel in January of this year.
Timothy H. Bishop Member of Congress
Leonard L. Boswell Member of Congress
Gerry E. Connolly Member of Congress
Joe Courtney Member of Congress
Ed Perlmutter Member of Congress