Congressional Franking Spending on Decline

With public approval of Congress at a consistent low, it's hard to give Members a complement or, rather, a comment on them doing something less badly. However, when it comes to their decreasing mail costs, some credit may be due.

In the first 6 months of 2013, House Members spent significantly less of their office allowances on franked mail (official letters that are permitted to be sent without postage), $8.8 million less than the same period in 2012. There are a few reasons for such a change, including:

The Interwebs: Politico reported that direct mail is being replaced with online communications (email and web ads). Comparing 2012 to 2013, Congress is following the mass migration of advertising dollars from print media (newspapers, magazines, and mailers) to social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google ads, etc.). The average Member who spent $2.2 million last year is now spending $3.6 million now and the reasoning is simple: online targeting is cheaper (if it costs anything at all) in reaching a larger audience.

Legislative Action and Sequestration: That same article cited an 18 percent cut in Members' Representational Allowances (annual budgets of Congress' office space, travel, salaries, and franking). Congress itself has passed legislation that has cut their own office benefits by at least 11 percent (via the Congressional Research Service (CRS)). And, yes, the automatic across-the-board cuts (sequestration) that big spenders are preaching will bring about Armageddon are forcing Congress to further cut their own allowances like the rest of the government. Millions of tax dollars have been saved and millions more will not be spent if this trend continues.

The Election Cycle:  However, there is a factor that Politico does not address: getting reelected. Another CRS report delved into the limits of franking in relation to election season. If a Representative is a candidate in a primary or general election, they are prohibited from sending out official mail 90 days in advance. The Members then avoid violating the regulation by sending out more mass mailers in the first 6 months of the election year. No rules are broken but mail volumes for Quarters 1 and 2 spike, as seen in 2012 as opposed to 2013. One other thing to note: CRS believes mail volume between non-election and election years does not significantly change and, while I can agree with their research, I'm making more of a point on the timeliness of franked mail, not the quantity.

So what should taxpayers expect in 2014? My money is on registered voters getting more franked mailers in the first half of the year and a steadily increasing amount of emails and online ads as we get closer to November, compared to 2013. As far as federal spending, franking costs should be expected to further decrease as Hill offices discover that online communications produce better results at a much lower (if any) cost. This issue is also divided by political parties in that Republicans tend to send out more franked mail than Democrats. This too will likely decrease as technology gets better at delivering Members’ messages in better ways online.