Is Franking a USPS “Bailout” of Congress? Not Quite

Update: Dead Tree Edition has published a correction.

Dead Tree Edition has an article about the Congressional franking privilege, and the unfair advantage it gives Members of Congress at election time. Unfortunately, the central premise of the piece, that franking is a “freebie” subsidized by USPS customers, is incorrect. The author writes:

Congress provides no compensation to the Postal Service for franked mail. That means that either other mailers pay for all those newsletters in the form of higher postage rates or that USPS goes further into the red.

In fact Congress does pay for franked mail. As a 2007 Congressional Research Service report on franking said: “Congress pays the U.S. Postal Service for franked mail through annual appropriations for the legislative branch.” (A copy of the report appears below.)

This is similar to the way the USPS is paid for official mail sent by federal agencies- money is appropriated to the agencies, not directly to the USPS. The agencies then use the appropriated funds to purchase postage from the USPS the same as any other mailer.

The article gives the impression that congressmen and senators can send as much mail as they like to their constituents “as election time rolls around”, but the fact is that each member has a set amount to spend for postage, and each house sets limits on what can be sent in the period leading up to elections:

Senators are prohibited from sending mass mailings fewer than 60 days prior to any primary election in which they are a candidate, as well as 60 days prior to any general election, regardless of whether or not they are a candidate. House Members are prohibited from sending mass mailings fewer than 90 days prior to any general or primary election in which they are a candidate, and are prohibited from sending unsolicited mass mailings outside their district.

Does franking provide an unfair advantage to incumbent members of Congress? Absolutely- but it’s not as cut and dried as the Dead Tree article suggests, and it’s not paid for by USPS customers- as the required endorsement on franked mass mailings says, it’s “Prepared, Published, and Mailed at Taxpayer Expense.”

Congressional Franking Privilege: Background and Current Legislation