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2018 Worth Bingham Prize winners David McSwane, left, and Andrew Chavez, right, with Clara Bingham Lisa Abitbol

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

Free-Mail Privilege Proves A Boon To Incumbents


Six-part series

In this fourth of six articles, Worth Bingham of The Courier-Journal’s Washington Bureau today examines how Congressmen use The Record and the franking privilege.

Part 1: Our Costly Congress

Part 2: Expense Facts Compared To Iceberg — Most Hidden

Part 3: All Is Not Passing Of Laws

Part 5: New Building May Top Pentagon Cost

Part 6: Financial Reports Hide Actual Spending

Washington, July 24. — One very good reason why it is so difficult to beat an incumbent senator or representative is because the United States taxpayer subsidizes the election efforts of every man and woman on Capitol Hill. 

It is not only the expensive staffing, which was described in yesterday’s article, or the free office equipment, or the generous telephone allowances and the cut-rate printing costs. The godsend to any incumbent is the free use of the mails known as the franking privilege.

Actual Practice Varies

Technically, a lawmaker has “the privilege of sending free through the mails, and under his frank, any mail matter to any government official or to any person, correspondence, not exceeding 4 ounces in weight, upon official or departmental business, from the date of his election.”

But it doesn’t work out precisely that way in practice.

In the first place, congressmen use the frank to send out newsletters, loaded questionnaires:

 (“Would you like to see taxes increased so that the Federal Government could finance more spending programs?”)

They also send out political puffs in the form of “press releases.”

(“Washington, D.C. Congressman Richard Roudebush (R., Ind.) will be among the Republican members of Congress honored at a G.O.P. Congressional dinner in the Sheraton­ Park Hotel here June 22.”)

In the second place, anything that has appeared in the Congressional Record is automatically eligible for the frank. 

Use and abuse of the Congressional Record has risen to monumental proportions in recent years. By obtaining the formality of “unanimous consent” of his colleagues, a congressman may “revise and extend” his remarks­ inserting into the appendix of the Record speeches and articles never given on the floor.

Representative Paul C. Jones (D., Mo.), an expert on the subject, estimates that 5 percent of the congressmen take up 80 percent of the Record’s space, largely with extraneous material.

Leaders in the field are Senator Hubert Humphrey (D., Minn.) — of whom it has been said “he keeps no files, just puts everything in the Record”— and Senator Homer Capehart (R., Ind.) who, between

January 22 and February 2, inserted 27 newspaper articles and editorials.

A favorite Capehart device is to make a speech or insert one in the appendix with a “headline” of his own choosing. Last August, Capehart launched a lengthy attack on the Administration’s foreign-aid bill on the floor; he labeled it “Capehart Fights for Free Enterprise System,” and ordered 60,000 reprints from the Government Printing Office.

Masthead Looks Official

The reprints came back marked “Not Printed at Government Expense.” This is a polite fiction that is supposed to assuage the taxpayer-voter.

Capehart’s speech was printed in the Record at a cost of $90 a page. The cost of reprinting — $3.58  per  thousand  copies  of a one-page speech after the first thousand have been run off at a slightly higher charge — is low because reprints are produced from the same type which was used to print the Congressional Record.

Capehart’s reprints had an official­ looking “Congressional Record” masthead of the type which appears on the first page of the daily journal, making it seem that his speech led off the day.

Actually, it appeared on the 51st page of the Record.

Along with the 60,000 reprints came a like number of franked envelopes to mail them in. On the face of the envelopes were the words:

“United States Senate,” then, in tiny print: “Part of the Congressional Record — Free,” then in large, bold-face type the headline: “Capehart Fights for Free Enterprise System.

The annual printing bill on the Record comes to more than $2,500,000. Jones proposed a set of ground rules that would banish all extraneous material to the appendix and limit each member to one such item a week. He was greeted with yawns.

“It seems that up here no one wants to take any privileges away from anyone — we just want to add to them.” Jones said.

Representative John Brademas (D., Ind.) used the Record for a thinly veiled appeal for votes during the 1960 campaign.

In a “report to his constituents” which he entered in the Record after the rump session of Congress in the fall, Brademas pointed to various “honors” he had received during the year, including aiding Chester Bowles in drawing up the civil­ rights plank at the Democratic National Convention, receiving a citizenship award from the Democratic National Committee. and participating in a film “Mr. Brademas Goes to Washington,” showing the first weeks in the life of a new congressman.

Hoosier’s Use Told

Brademas sent the report out under his frank to every voter in his district. The Hoosier lawmaker noted that he is a staunch supporter of the mutual-security program, but that “when my Republican opponent was our representative in Congress he cast his vote, on July 2, 1958 against President Eisenhower’s mutual security appropriation bill and thus drove a knife into the heart of a program the President has described as ‘indispensable to our own and Free World defense against Communist imperialism.”’

Brademas had some kind words for then Senator Kennedy, and noted that “when one man or one house of worship or one religious faith is today made the object of attack, tomorrow another ma: feel the sharp lash of bigotry.” 

Brademas illustrated his newsletter with a picture of himself and Kennedy, taken in the latter’s Georgetown garden. Brademas’ opponent, F. Jay Nimtz, complained to the Post Office Department that the frank had been used improperly, but since the matter in question had first appeared in the Record, it was ruled frankable. The picture was also allowed, on the ground that it illustrated material which had been in the Record.

During the 1960 campaign 21 such complaints were lodged with the Post Office Department, 15 against Democrats, six against Republicans. The Department decided that six of the Democrats and two Republicans had violated their franking privileges.

The eight transgressors subsequently paid for the questionable mail out of their own pockets.

Policing Job Ducked 

Because it is a political hot potato, no one wants to police the franking privilege. Officials at the Post Office say that until a complaint is lodged with them the lawmakers themselves are the only judges of what they should or should not send out under the frank. James F. Kelleher, special assistant to the Postmaster General, said:

“We go under the assumption that this is their privilege, something they appropriate money for, and something they should police.

Congress’ franking privilege cost the taxpayers $3,986,000 for the 88,800,000 pieces of mail sent out during the fiscal year 1961. The cost will skyrocket if congressmen start making extensive use of the House-sponsored occupant-mail provision which passed on the last day of the session in 1961.

For years, members have been allowed to send as much franked mail as they want to “postal patron,” “boxholder,” or “rural route patron” without going to the bother of addressing the mail personally. Last year this privilege was extended to city­ postal patrons.

So far, there is controversy over just how much the so-called “junk mail” provision is being used. 

Truman Ward, the House majority printing clerk, says his workload during the first three months of 1962 was 50 to 100 percent greater than in any other first quarter; but Eli Bjelus, who heads up the House folding room where many of Ward’s products are folded, inserted in envelopes, sealed, addressed, and mailed, said:

Not ten percent has been added to our workload because of the occupant-mail privilege.

A Post Office official said: “Very, very few congressmen have taken advantage of the new privilege. Either they don’t want it or they feel the criticism has made it less than useful.”

Kentuckian’s Mailing Cited

Nevertheless, isolated instances keep cropping up. In April, Representative Frank Chelf (D., Ky.) sent out 128,000 “occupant” letters to voters in his new 19- county district. As a way to get acquainted with his new constituents, Chelf invited them to get on his agricultural-bulletin mailing list.

‘The Department of Agriculture now has available a new list of valuable bulletins prepared by their experts, and I want you to have them absolutely free of cost,” Chelf wrote in the 78,000-letter portion of the mailing which went to “occupants” in cities.

“For the past 18 years I have made this data available to my farmers in the old Fourth District, and I must frankly admit it never before occurred to me that folks living in the county seat of larger cities might have a real need for it.

“As a concrete example, this data tells how to rid one’s lawn of grass disease; it points out how to eliminate elm-bark damage, and it even gives pointers on food and one’s weight.”

At least one senator has taken exception in this sort of mass-mail technique. 

“I know many members defend using boxholder and rural-route address to send out lists of Government publications which are available,” Senator Frank Moss (D., Utah) told a Senate appropriations subcommittee recently. He added:

“Many people are glad to be reminded of the many informational pamphlets and booklets which their Government publishes, but I don’t think this service justifies Congressional mass mailings.

Moss explained, “the people can get both agricultural bulletin lists and the bulletins themselves by writing directly to the Department of Agriculture. There is usually only a small fee involved in ordering these bulletins … What  right have we to drum up trade for these publications at the expense of the Post Office deficit?”

Add the $90 a page for inserting material into the Congressional Record, add the millions it costs for the franking privilege, and you begin to see why every senator and representative prizes these built-in campaign funds, provided by the taxpayer-voters back home.

Copyright, 1962, by The Courier-Journal