Washington Editor’s note: An occasional look at how Washington works — or doesn’t.
Freshman members of Congress are using a perk to blanket districts with mass mailings and other messages to promote themselves back home, particularly those in this year’s tightest election contests, an Associated Press review shows.
Last year, the 54 House members who were first elected to Congress in November 2008 spent more than $11 million in taxpayer money communicating with their constituents, using it for everything from live teleconferences to postage and printing for slick, colorful newsletters.
Nineteen of the freshmen spent at least $250,000 each, according to the AP review. And the more hard-fought their electoral victories were in 2008, the more likely the lawmakers were to be among the big spenders in the House.
The leading spenders were three first-term lawmakers: Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who spent $470,059.25; Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., $422,055.17; and Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., $413,996.12. They were all elected in tight races.
Those who are busiest communicating with public financing say it’s what their constituents want.
“With so many significant issues being discussed in Washington such as health care reform, jobs and the economy, we are constantly being asked what Congress is doing and what is in these bills,” said Paulsen spokesman Andrew Foxwell. “It is our job to inform citizens in a timely manner and to ask for their feedback, which is why we are aggressively striving to communicate with constituents.”
A look at Paulsen’s mailings finds little beyond routine information readily available elsewhere.
One, titled “Strengthening America for Minnesota families, one step at a time,” featured a cover photo of a young family, an offer to help with Capitol tours and a survey asking various questions, such as whether the recipient supports a “nationalized health care system.”
A Paulsen newsletter on veterans and the armed forces featured six photos of the congressman spread over six colorful pages, his name mentioned in a dozen headings or headlines about what bills he has backed and other things he has done. A postcard mailing focused on the swine flu epidemic and advised readers to wash their hands especially after coughing or sneezing.
That was typical of the mailings AP examined. They tended to feature photos that took up much of the space. Issues were frequently dispensed with in a few sentences, often in slogan-like ways familiar to listeners of campaign ads.
To guard against overt political appeals, a congressional commission regulates subsidized mass communications and bars sending them out within 90 days of an election. But their political purpose often wears only the thinnest of disguises.
Twenty lawmakers, including seven Democratic and four Republican freshmen, spent at least $306,000 each and are generally from competitive districts.
Lawmakers with less election competition — by far the majority — tend to spend far less on mass mailings, usually under $200,000 a year. Twenty-five lawmakers spent nothing.
Each House member’s office budget is set by a complicated formula and ranges from about $1.4 million to $1.7 million. About a third of members of Congress are allotted at least $1.5 million.
A lawmaker decides within guidelines how much goes for staff salaries, district offices and the like, enabling some to spend more for mailing and less for staff.
Titus’ spokesman, Andrew Stoddard, said that because her Nevada district is the most populous in the country, with nearly 1 million people, “it’s no surprise that we would need to spend more than other offices to communicate with our constituents.”
Her total is more than the combined spending of House members representing the 5.7 million people in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
Jenkins’ newsletters included one that focused on fighting for limited government and had on its cover a large picture of the Jefferson Memorial and a quote from Thomas Jefferson that “Most bad government has grown out of too much government.”
Inside, the congresswoman wrote: “The unprecedented expansion of government powers over the past eight months should concern every American. It concerns me.”
In explaining her spending on mass communications, she said about 10 percent of her office budget went unused last year. “Instead of operating with obscene overhead expenses, we have a streamlined office that allows us to allocate significant resources to constituent communication,” she said.