Spending in congressional offices might not be driving the deficit, but it is a powerful symbol -- and when candidates promise to cut spending on almost-political mailings and other office expenses and then don't, that hurts congressional credibility and the effort to balance the budget.
The newest members of Congress, who surged into office with a promise to cut spending, have already spent millions of tax dollars printing and mailing pamphlets to their constituents, embracing a perk known as "franking" they once derided as wasteful, a Washington Guardian review of congressional spending reports shows.
And the messages the freshmen lawmakers are sending to constituents as the election nears read more like political slogans than the official business required for franked letters. (Click here to download examples.)
“The president and leaders in the Senate have blocked progress at every turn,” charges one recent mailer from Rep. Renee Ellmers, a former nurse turned Tea Party favorite who now represents a congressional district in North Carolina.
Ironically, Ellmers was elected after slamming incumbent Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge during the 2010 campaign, accusing her opponent of using tax dollars to send out mailings that resembled campaign materials.
“In every way these mailings resembled typical campaign ads, except they were paid for by taxpayers and not by your campaign,” she wrote about the letters and emails sent to constituents. “How can you explain writing taxpayers that you are ‘reducing the deficit’ when you are wasting thousands of dollars of their money on political mailings to help you get reelected?”
But since unseating Etheridge, the Republican has spent $92,621.71 on franked mail during her first 18 months in office, far more than the $55,723.39 her predecessor spent during the equivalent period.
With the exception of a calendar that was sent to constituents, Etheridge’s franked mail during his last year in office was typed 8x11 letters to constituents. Ellmers, meanwhile, has produced a number of magazine-style and single-sheet full-color mailers, often with more room given over to pictures and bullet points than any message from the representative herself.
In 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, the 119 freshmen members of Congress spent a total of $7,626,590.20 of taxpayer money on franked mail, and $8,836,073.33 on printing and advertising costs, according to the Washington Guardian's review of official House and Senate records.
Though prolific, Ellmers isn't even the biggest spender among the freshmen when it comes to franking.
That distinction falls to Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami-area Democrat, who has charged taxpayers nearly $150,000 during her first 18 months in office for ads, Facebook communications and franked mailings like the recent one that offered a bumper-sticker-like message, "There are two Floridas - one that is struggling and one that is doing just fine. We must close the gap."
Much of Wilson's money went to buy newspaper space to advertise a jobs fair she held in conjunction with Miami's mayor. The representative also sent out two color pamphlets detailing her accomplishments in Congress.
Neither Ellmers nor Wilson returned repeated calls to their offices seeking comment.
Franked mailings are supposed to inform constituents about the official duties being performed by their elected representatives, but they've long walked a fine balance between informing and campaigning for reelection.
Many freshmen had vowed during their 2010 campaigns to rein in such spending. But the perk apparently was too tempting for most after they got into office.
“It is an incumbent advantage,” explained Douglas Kellogg of the National Taxpayers Union, which studies congressional spending with an eye toward identifying savings. “It’s reasonable to be very tough on your congressman and examine how he is spending his money.”
All franked mail carries the disclaimer: “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.” And by rule, it should only involve the official activities of Congress, not their re-election campaigns.
Some freshmen spent hundreds of thousands of dollars employing firms to create their mass mailings and build Web sites to communicate with constituents.
Just in the first quarter of 2012, Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican representing New York’s 18th district, spent more than $80,000 on services by Craft Media Digital, a communications firm. Another $1,376 in “advertising” cost was disbursed directly to the congresswoman herself. She also spent $15,490 on a “habitation expense” at Hudson Valley Office Furniture.
Similarly, Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat representing California’s 37th district, spent $77,000 for printing services from a firm called Winning Directions in the first quarter of 2012.
According to the Member Representational Allowance Handbook, the list of reimbursable expenses is broad and includes all “ordinary and necessary” expenses incurred by the member or staff undertaking official business within the United States.
As a whole, freshmen members of Congress kept their promise to reduce their spending. In their first 18 months in office, they’ve spent $31 million less than their predecessors on salaries, mailings, and other office expenditures.
“If somebody spends less than their allotment, they deserve praise from their taxpayers,” Kellogg said. “It is an indication of how serious someone is about cutting spending, but it’s not the only indication.”
Based on the National Taxpayers Union past analysis, Kellogg said a member of Congress should use about 70 percent of their office spending on salary and the rest to cover other expenses. Taxpayers should take note if their representative is going far off those averages, he said.
The single largest reduction in spending came from Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who so far has spent $685,000 less than his predecessor on office expenditures. And in 2011, Daniel Webster (R – Fla. 10) spent about $932,000 on his office expenditures – almost $535,000 below his House allotment.
But not all freshmen have been so thrifty.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., advocates fiscal responsibility on his House Web site: “We need to take serious measures to reduce deficit spending and balance the federal budget."
But Scott's official spending records show he’s spent almost $126,000 more on office expenditures than his predecessor, Democrat Jim Marshall. And Scott is the fourth-largest user of franked mail in the House, racking up a bill of $80,000.
Franked mail is taxpayer-funded communications about official business from members of Congress to their constituents.