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10 News Investigators: Tax dollars providing free mail for members of Congress

3:46 PM, May 9, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Fla. - There's a good chance you get mail from your elected member of Congress -- and there's a good chance it goes straight into your trash.

Taxpayers, not campaigns, are paying for pieces that tout a U.S. representative's achievements and political positions, and it cost them more than $31 million last year.

Dating back to the colonial days, U.S. representatives have been given the privilege of free mass mailers to keep constituents informed. They have been called "Franks," derivative of the Latin word for "free."  

While Congress has instituted rules curbing the political nature of the mailings over the years, experts say many of the full-color brochures still resemble campaign materials.

"For the average person, it just looks like it's just campaign literature," said USF political expert Dr. Susan MacManus.  "(Congressmen) can get their message out without having to claim it as a campaign expenditure, so that's said to advantage the incumbent versus anyone who might challenge a sitting Congress member."

In 2011, more than half of the $31.1 million spent on Congressional "Franking" came in the final quarter of the year: the months closest to the next election. And no Florida representative spent more on mass communication than Vern Buchanan (R-Sarasota).

"You have (close to) 200,000 people in my district age 65 and older," Buchanan said, defending his $252,741 in mass-communication spending. "It's all changing from somewhat mail to email, but not quite as quick here as other parts of the country."

Buchanan said his office has started to shift to more email communication and tele-town halls to keep constituents informed, but said his district -- with a median age of 47, believed to be the highest in the country -- needs direct mail correspondence.

Florida's next two biggest spenders on mass mailing are also both from Greater Tampa Bay: Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) spent $204,267 last year, while Rich Nugent (R-Brooksville) spent $200,070.

Castor, who used mass mailers to draw approximately 100 people to an identity protection seminar last week, said she was elected to interact and represent her constituents. But she also utilized mass mailers to tell Tampa-area residents of where she stood on issues like Medicare and the economy.

She said the rules surrounding "Franking" prohibit incumbents from using it for political gain.

"There are deadlines," Castor said. "I'm not allowed to send any official mail months before the election, so I think that's a good rule."

Nugent said the difference between his spending and many other Congress members' is that he won't spend tax dollars on color brochures. His $200,070 of mass communication went toward black-and-white letters, mass emails, and tele-town halls. It allowed him to send out 13.2 million pieces of communication last year, nearly triple the communications Buchanan (3.9 million) and Castor (0.6 million) sent combined.

"Here's what I always had a problem with," Nugent said. "Members of Congress use those big glossy photos...'Hey look at me! Look at what I've done for you!' Most people feel like that's a campaign piece."

Member of Congress $ Spent on mass communication $ Spent on all expenses % Of budget unused; returned to Treasury
Rep. Vern Buchanan $252,741 $1.37 million 8%
Rep. Kathy Castor $204,267 $1.27 million 12%
 Rep. Rich Nugent $200,070 $1.21 million 19%
Rep. Gus Bilirakis $119,187 $1.32 million 10%
Rep. Dennis Ross $37,669 $1.31 million 11%
Rep. C.W. Bill Young $4,238 $1.11 million 23%
Source: 2011 Congressional reports, USA Today research

PDF: How all of Florida's Congressmen and Congresswomen stack up

A representative from Congressman Bill Young's office says their office doesn't believe in mass mailing. The $4,238 they spent last year on mass mailers were just replies to constituents that reached out to Young. The congressman said through an emailed statement:

One of my highest priorities is staying in touch with the people I represent.  I answer every letter, call and e-mail communication I receive and let my constituents know where I stand on the issues.  I also try to follow-up with those who have contacted me on an issue to let them know of any new developments.  Sometimes people write to say they agree with my position on an issue.  Sometimes they write to say they disagree.  Sometimes they say changed their mind after reading my response.  My favorite, though, are those who say thank you for the response.  I still disagree with you but I appreciate that you took the time to answer and to be honest with me.

Young was able to parlay his savings on mass mailers into a 23 percent refund to the U.S. Treasury from his $1.4 million budget. Members of Congress can spend their budgets however they like, so the smallest mass-mailers aren't always the most budget-conscience.

After Young, the second- and third-biggest refunds to the U.S. Treasury from Greater Tampa Bay came from Nugent (19 percent) and Castor (12 percent). 

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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