In 1996 when then-citizen Walt Minnick ran to unseat then-Sen. Larry Craig, Minnick took exception with Craig running as a "fiscal conservative" while using the congressional franking privileges to send out more than $132,000 worth of taxpayer-funded mailings to constituents. Minnick, during his first year in Congress, has used more than $150,000 for taxpayer dollars to frank, though his campaign spokesman points out that he has used that money for more direct forms of communication as well, such as telephone town hall meetings. Staffers for Minnick's electoral opponent, Republican Raul Labrador, say that Minnick is using the franking privilege for political purposes.
Jay Howell, investigative reporter for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, first reported Minnick's use of franking dollars in an article posted May 12. Howell wrote that Idaho's two congressmen, Minnick and Rep. Mike Simpson, used more than $168,000 in franking money. Simpson used about $18,000 of that amount, primarily on a mailer in support of the Idaho F-35 project. Simpson also used $4,150 to conduct one telephone town hall meeting. Minnick, on the hand, has been more active and varied in his communication with constituents. Howell noted that Minnick used his franking privileges to fund several telephone town hall meetings, newspaper advertisements, a newsletter, and a survey.
In a letter dated June 2, 1996, Minnick, then running against Craig, slammed the senator for his use of franking. Minnick said that Craig's mailings are a waste of money and essentially worthless. "I bet most Idahoans would rate Craig's junk mail somewhere below a letter from the Publisher's Clearinghouse," Minnick said in the release. According to records, in his first four years in the U.S. Senate, Craig spent $132,000 on franking, which, when adjusted for inflation, totals more than $178,000. That means that Craig averaged about $44,500 a year during his first four years in the Senate, while Minnick averaged roughly $30,000 a quarter in his first 15 months in office. Minnick had no franking expenses in the first three months of his service in office.
Senators, unlike representatives, are limited to $50,000 a year for mass mailings, a cap instituted in 1994, though congressmen do have higher limits based on financial formulas. The dollars amounts for representatives differ from the limit put on senators in that representatives are able to use their franking dollars for more than mass mailings. Also, members of Congress must have their mailers approved through a bipartisan franking commission, a panel that ensures that no material sent out is used for campaign purposes. Additionally, members are not allowed to send out materials three months in advance of primary or general elections and must have materials marked in a way that indicates they are official in nature.
Minnick had more harsh words for Craig in the 1996 release and called for Congress to rein in so-called junk mail. "It is a perfect example of how professional politicians use a system of perks to stay in office and rip off the taxpayer at the same time ... I propose Congress eliminate Congressional junk mail completely," he said.
Minnick campaign spokesman John Foster, who was not a part of Minnick's failed 1996 run for the Senate, said that the money Minnick used for franking allows him to stay in close contact with constituents in the state. "The features those telephone town halls offer provide a phenomenal way to stay in touch with constituents, which is why so many offices do them regularly. They are of particular value in a rural district like this one, where so many people live so far away from a physical congressional field office," Foster said. Interestingly enough, the 1996 release by Minnick said that Craig often defended his franking dollars by saying that direct mail is the easiest way to stay in touch with citizens in sparsely-populated and geographically spacious districts.
Foster also said that Minnick's franking dollars have been utilized to enhance casework in the 1st Congressional District, which Minnick represents. Constituents often contact their congressmen in help dealing with federal agencies. After initial contact is made, congressional staffers are typically assigned to help constituents navigate their way through federal paperwork and red tape. That process is often referred to as casework. "After we sent the first piece in 2009, we had a big bump in the number of people seeking assistance. Each piece increased, at an exponential level, the number of folks in the casework system. It essentially advertised the customer service that Walt's office provides. And it worked. More than 2,000 cases and more than $3 million returned to constituents," Foster said. "In short, Walt's franking has provided a great return on investment."
China Gum, Labrador's acting spokesperson, said in a statement to IdahoReporter.com that Minnick is now using the perks of his position for political purposes. "What could explain Mr. Minnick’s change of heart on using taxpayer money to pay for mail? He is now the incumbent and is able to use public money to pay for his re-election. And our nation’s budget situation is many times worse than it was back then. It is rather astonishing that Mr. Minnick has so quickly adapted himself to the Washington culture.”
(Note: IdahoReporter.com is a product of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.)