Since January of 2009, taxpayers have spent more than $168,000 so Idaho’s two U.S. congressmen can conduct telephone town halls and send out mass mailings. Of that, 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick spent $150,308 and 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson spent $18,337 on their “franking” privileges.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the word "frank" is derived from the Latin word "francus", which means free, though it's anything but. In a nutshell, franking is the privilege of senators, representatives, and selected government officials to send mail to their constituents at taxpayer expense. The practice can be traced back to 17th Century England, and was authorized in America by the First Constitutional Congress of 1775. In our nation’s 234-year history, changes to franking regulations have dealt with who has the privilege, what they can send, to whom they can send it, etc.
Currently, other officials who have franking privileges are the vice president, Congress members-elect, former presidents, and even members of the armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rules and regulations ban officials from using their franking privilege to send solicitations for funds or votes, or sending anything related to campaigns, political parties, holiday greetings, or biographical accounts. All mass mailings must go to addresses within the individual official’s home district. How much each representative can spend annually (the Member's Representational Allowance, or MRA) is calculated using a formula based on how many addresses are in that official’s home district. Both Minnick and Simpson’s MRAs are slightly more than $1.5 million; they are allowed to spend up to that amount annually on franking.
According to public records obtained by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Idaho’s two representatives have used their franking privileges to send mass mailings through the U.S. Postal Service, conduct telephone town hall meetings, send out mass e-mailings, and place newspaper ads.
In the current Congress, which began in January of 2009, most of Simpson’s franking expenses came in the first quarter of this year, when he sent more than 92,000 pieces of mail related to the F-35 fighter project to his 2nd District constituents, at a cost of $13,817. He also spent $4,150 on a telephone town hall meeting on Feb. 24. His other franking expense came in November 2009, when he spent $370.46 on a “gun mass mailing.”
Minnick spent no money on franking from January-March 2009, but has had expenses every quarter since. In the second quarter of 2009, he spent $2,500 on telephone calls. In the third quarter, that increased to $72,748 for a survey, a newsletter, and four telephone town hall meetings. Minnick spent $62,486 in the fourth quarter, on three telephone town hall meetings, a newspaper ad, and a newsletter. In the first quarter of 2010, he spent $12, 573 on three town halls, three rounds of pre-townhall “robo” calls, and two sets of newspaper ads.
It’s a different story over on the Senate side of the Capitol. According to Susan Wheeler, communications director for Sen. Mike Crapo, each senator is limited to a flat $50,000 per fiscal year for franking. Furthermore, they’re not allowed to use that money for anything other than responding to constituent letters. Wheeler said in FY2009, Crapo spent $7,657 on franking, and has spent $3,537 thus far in FY2010. According to Sen. Jim Risch's office, he spent $14,650 on franking in FY2010, and $9,338 to date this fiscal year.