Bye-bye franked mail
By: Ginger Gibson
September 9, 2013 11:37 AM EST
Gone are the days of the congressional mailer.
The shiny taxpayer-funded fliers or the officially stamped letters that once populated mailboxes around the country are dying a surprisingly quick death.
The cause: The Internet mainly — Facebook ads and emails make for quicker and more targeted contact, sped along by the sequester, which forced even members of Congress to tighten their belts.
Members of the House spent 68 percent less on mailers — known in congressional speak as franking since they come with taxpayer funded postage — during the first half of this year compared with the same period of 2012, according to an analysis by POLITICO of the House’s quarterly disbursement reports.
In the first six months of this year, House members have spent $4,139,890 to send mass mail to their constituents. By comparison, in the first six months of 2012, House members spent $12,901,782.
The drop wasn’t because the mailers got cheaper. The $4.1 million used for the first half of 2013 bought 11,580,521 pieces, which average out to about 36 cents apiece. During the same time in 2012, 35,296,449 pieces of mail were sent at about 37 cents a piece.
The biggest spenders on direct mail are Republicans, who made up 13 of the top 20 direct mail spenders.
Salley Wood, spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the direct mailers, said members are becoming more technologically savvy, using email and Web ads to reach constituents instead of depending on door-to-door mail.
Additionally, costs are being slashed to keep up with reduced budgets.
“We’ve cut member budgets by 18 percent in the last three years,” Wood said.
Part of the reduction is because some members aren’t using the Postal Service at all. In the first six months of 2013, 172 House members sent out mailers — ranging in total costs from $119,329.06 by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) to just $115 by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). In the same period of 2012, 247 members used the congressional direct mail benefit. The smallest expenditure came in at $524.70 by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and the largest at $228,422.05 by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).
Meehan accounted for the largest chunk spent in the first six months of 2013, spending $119,329.06 on 332,654 mailers.
“Congressman Meehan makes it a priority to communicate with the people of the 7th District and listen to their concerns,” spokesman John Elizandro said. “In addition to Twitter, Facebook, email newsletters and teletown halls, mail is an important tool in communicating with 7th District families, particularly regarding district events like job fairs and senior expos.”
Congressional offices point to the sequester as part of the reason for the drop. When forced to cut budgets, many lawmakers looked at mailings as a potential area to cut from instead of slicing staff salaries.
But it’s not like lawmakers aren’t spending money at all to reach out to constituents.
In the first half of 2012, House members spent $2,177,547 on other forms of mass communication, including Facebook and online ads, to reach out to constituents. That number increased during the same period of 2013, with $3,578,105 being spent in the first six months on digital communications.
Wood explains that part of the reason behind the increase is a growing sophistication about targeted online messaging on platforms like Facebook and Google. For a higher price, lawmakers can tailor their ads to increase the likelihood of being seen by residents of their districts.
And some members are sending out electronic contacts to residents without any cost. In the second quarter of this year, 86 members reported electronic mass communication that cost them nothing. In total, 279 House members used nonmail forms of mass communication to contact constituents.
In the same period of 2012, 266 members used digital means to contact constituents, but only 67 of them did so without creating any expenses.
While a substantial number of members have dropped direct mail from their budgets, there are still some cranking out the mailers. And they see them as important tools to connect with voters.
Some of the offices using mailers say they’re just more effective in getting residents to show up to town hall meetings or meet and greets. And those who still had large franking expenditures pointed to redistricting and a need to make contact with new residents that they gained after the last election.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) was the second-highest spender on franked mail in the first half of 2013, spending $106,706.66. His office explains that switching over to digital just isn’t reasonable for a district that has a higher-than-average senior population.
“We have one of the oldest districts in the country, so while we do have a heavy online presence and work hard to reach constituents through email, Facebook and Twitter, we’ve found that many of our constituents — particularly seniors — don’t use email, and the best way to connect with them and get their opinions is to send them mail and ask them to return the attached surveys,” spokesman Michael Mahaffey said.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who had the third-highest total of so far this year at $95,508.72, uses his mailers to alert constituents of town hall meetings, his office said.
“He sends out quarterly mailers, which include the upcoming town hall schedule — as well as a message from the congressman,” his spokesman Ben Miller said. “While he also sends an email to people in the area prior to town halls, he knows schedules are busy and the sooner folks back home can put it on their calendar, the easier it will be for them to attend. Feedback from the mailers is overwhelmingly positive and town halls are well attended.”