Even before the Constitution was adopted, members of the First Continental Congress voted themselves the power to send government-financed mail to constituents.
And for perhaps nearly as long, critics have complained of federal lawmakers’ ability to tap taxpayer money to connect with the public and, not coincidentally, bolster their reelection chances.
The use of what’s called “franking” has been declining for years, and there are signs the drop may be accelerating because of budget cuts and 21st-century technology.
The $16.3 million that Congress spent on postage in 2012 was 40 percent less than 2010 levels, a comparable election year, according to the Congressional Research Service. The total fell further, to $11.3 million, last year.
Just as citizens use snail-mail less often, Congress is turning to emailed newsletters, tele-town halls and social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to connect with the public and promote themselves.
“It’s the new best way to stay in touch with the public, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” said Steven Miller, a journalism professor at Rutgers University. “Seventy percent of people under 30 learn about news through social media. For those 40 to 49, it’s 40 percent.”
But while most social media platforms are free and should provide a more level playing field for incumbents and challengers, even here members of Congress have an edge: They can use public money to pay staff members to craft effective online messages, clip and publish YouTube videos or, in the case of House members, hire consultants to develop lists of email addresses and manage contact lists of constituents who call, write or email.
In general, the Senate puts more limits on official budgets than the House does. For example, senators have a dollar limit on how much franking they can do, and spending on advertising is restricted to filling job openings. At the same time, senators have bigger staffs, so they can pay an employee to handle social media more easily than House members can.
House rules give members an overall “representational allowance” and more freedom to decide how to divide it between staff and other expenses.
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