Scottsdale and Tempe voters received a piece of mail in June that looked suspiciously like a political campaign brochure from Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz.
It was an 8½-by-11-inch, glossy full-color brochure that featured a photo of a soldier with his head bowed. The text read, “They Served With Honor. They Deserve Our Respect. Inside: Find Out How Congressman Harry Mitchell is Fighting for Our Troops and Veterans.”
Mitchell, a first-term Democrat from Tempe, said the brochure was a legitimate use of “franking,” one of Congress’ oldest privileges that allows federal lawmakers to produce and send mail at taxpayers’ expense.
Mitchell is just one of hundreds of lawmakers who distribute mass mailers to constituents.
Overall, Congress racks up more than $25 million a year in mail expenses, according to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Last year the total was $26.6 million, down from a high of $113.4 million in 1988. The tally includes mass mailers as well as individual letters sent to constituents.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., serving his fourth term, is trying to increase the pain for House members who send mass mailers that serve the purpose of campaign mail.
Flake recently introduced legislation that would require members of the House to include a line on their mass mailers that states how much they cost.
He figures voters will be interested to know that most mass mailers cost as much as $50,000 a batch.
Mass mailers already are required to include a line that reads: “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.”
Flake’s legislation would require an additional line that reads: “The aggregate cost of this mailing to the taxpayers is (fill in the amount here).”
The intention is to reduce the amount of self-promotional mail that House members send, Flake said.
“Incumbents all too often campaign on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said. “When you look at the mass mailers that go out, supposedly just to inform constituents of what’s going on in Washington, they’re indistinguishable from campaign mail.”
The only difference between most official mass mailers and unofficial campaign pieces is who pays for them, said Mike O’Neil, president of O’Neil Associates, a public opinion research firm based in Tempe.
“It’s a blatant attempt to use public funds to campaign,” he said.
All franked mail is covered by each member’s office budgets, which generally fall in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million a member, depending on the size of each member’s district, distance from Washington and other factors.
Flake’s legislation would not affect individual letters sent to voters.
Tracking franking figures is difficult and slow. The figures are collected quarterly, but they aren’t reported until months later, and they’re subject to revisions for two quarters after the close of the calendar year.
The most recent figures compiled by the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union is for 2005.
“It’s just terrible that members of Congress just do abysmally in reporting these things, but they do,” said Pete Sepp, vice president of the organization.
Mitchell has sent two mass mailers since he has been in federal office. A third is in production.
His first piece in April outlined his list of goals and announced his offices’ addresses and phone numbers. Mitchell’s second mass mailer in June focused on veterans affairs. His third will be a questionnaire soliciting response from residents about their top concerns.
Mitchell’s spokesman, Seth Scott, who was in Arizona traveling with Mitchell this week, said the first two cost about $40,000 to $50,000 combined. Scott said he did not have immediate access to the specific costs.
Mitchell said he hopes to speak to Flake to learn more about his franking legislation.
“It may have some merit to it,” Mitchell said. “You have to keep in mind he’s not doing away with franking; he’s talking about making it more open, I think. I really do believe in that.”
In the meantime, Mitchell defended both the message and look of his latest slick mass mailer, which features two photos of himself and a testimonial by retired Army Sgt. Tomas Chavez, who was a regular on the 2006 Arizona campaign circuit speaking on behalf of Democratic candidates, including Mitchell and former Senate candidate Jim Pederson.
Like Mitchell’s first piece, the veterans mailer was in compliance with established franking rules and was approved by a bipartisan franking commission, Mitchell said.
The look was to make it more appealing, he said.
“You know the packaging of anything is important to get people to look at anything,” he said. “If you put out a three-page, Xeroxed copy of 12-point and nothing but copy, you wouldn’t get — I don’t think — anybody to read it.”
Slick, attractive mailers make sense, said Bob Grossfeld, president of The Media Guys, a political consulting firm based in Scottsdale.
“The cost differential between doing something that looks very, very inexpensive and doing something that looks a little bit better and might result in people actually reading the material is now so slight that if you’re going to increase the probability that people will read it and learn something they should know, it’s probably worth whatever that relatively small difference is,” Grossfeld said.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has disclosed that she’s spent $39,300 on franking, while Rep. Ed Pastor has spent $41,400 and Rep. Raúl Grijalva has spent nothing. All are Democrats.
Flake and Republican Rep. John Shadegg reported spending nothing, while Republican Reps. Rick Renzi and Trent Franks have not disclosed their franking figures.