Chapter 8: Increasing the Quality of Constituent Communication
Communication with constituents is an essential and necessary part of democratic representation. The Founding Fathers agreed, as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes “the right to petition the Government.” Today, millions of Americans communicate with their representatives about issues that affect their daily lives including personal assistance, policy concerns, and ideas for the federal government. Congress relies on this citizen engagement to ensure it is representing constituents’ needs and truly working on behalf of the American people.
Members of Congress have always prioritized responding directly to their constituents by providing official government resources to inform citizens of public affairs, legislation they introduce, congressional votes, and important public policy updates. Since the Colonial Period the franking privilege (further detailed in this chapter) allows Members of Congress to send mail without postage, instead using an official signature. The signature replaces the need for a postage stamp, and the U.S. Postal Service charges the Member’s congressional office for the cost of the mailing. Today, the congressional franking privilege is still an important part of how Members of Congress communicate with constituents, taking the form of newsletters, constituent letters, or townhall advertisements. Yet as the needs and size of congressional districts have grown, and technology has improved, the scope and jurisdiction of the franking privilege has also expanded.
Today, electronic communication is easily the most common method of communicating with constituents. Every Member of Congress has his or her own individual website, and email correspondence has largely replaced postal mail. It’s estimated Congress receives between 25 and 35 million messages a year from constituents. In the last decade, social media has become a prominent force on Capitol Hill—nearly every House Member has a Facebook page or Twitter account that allows them to directly interact with constituents.
In response to changes in both technology and constituency, the franking privilege has been periodically amended by the House Communication Standards Commission (formerly known as the House Commission on Mailing Standards, or the “Franking Commission”) and the Committee on House Administration. These changes have included updates to the franking expenditures, topics permitted to be discussed in franked mail, the medium of communication, and the franking review process. Most recently, the Franking Commission moved to 100 percent digital submissions for their review process. But despite these continuous efforts, Congress is notoriously slow to adapt. The approval for use of the franking privilege remains cumbersome and slow, and rules that regulate the privilege are outdated. Originally created in the days of the printing press, these rules no longer fit a Congress that works in a world of email and social media.
The Committee, along with leadership of the House Franking Commission, recognized the need for reforms to make constituent communication more modern, efficient, and transparent. As Chair Derek Kilmer noted in a June 5, 2019 hearing on constituent engagement:
“New technologies have provided our constituents with more tools for contacting us, and that is a good thing. In fact, that is a really good thing, because we are here as representatives of the people and we need to know what our constituents think about the issues of the day. We can't do our jobs that we were elected to do without hearing their voices.”
Chair Derek Kilmer, June 5, 2019
The Committee held several hearings dedicated to the improvement of constituency communication, including “Improving Constituent Engagement” on June 5, 2019, “Congress and the Frank: Bringing Congressional Mailing Standards into the 21st Century” on October 31, 2019, and “Administrative Efficiencies: Exploring Options to Streamline Operations in the U.S. House of Representatives” on November 15, 2019. Other hearings featured best practices and emphasized constituent services.
Committee Members and staff worked closely with the House Communication Standards Commission and the Committee on House Administration. Together, they crafted, and the Committee passed, seven reforms geared toward increasing the quality of constituent communication. These recommendations were passed by the Committee on December 19, 2019 and were ultimately implemented by the House Communication Standards Commission in January 2020. Many of these recommendations are already fully implemented in the House, and the rest are underway.
Overall, the reforms focus on streamlining the approval process to improve constituent communications in Congress. The recommendations are intended to make congressional communication transparent for constituents, more efficient for Member offices, and offer much-needed technological updates to reflect the role of social media throughout society. This chapter details these recommendations, as well as the expertise and findings on which the Committee relied to propose and pass these reforms.
This chapter begins with an overview of the franking privilege and prior reforms in the House. It then turns to the specific recommendations made by the Committee and House Communication Standards Commission.
The franking privilege allows Members of Congress to send official, signed mail without postage. When the privilege was created, Members were not charged for this privilege; but since the 1990s, they have been required to account for the cost, and their offices are charged for postage accordingly. While franking privileges were originally the same for the House and the Senate, today the two bodies have their own rules and regulations. This chapter will focus on the franking privilege for the House.
To avoid improper use of the privilege and to keep pace with technological updates, franking rules and regulations have been amended several times since they were first introduced in the Continental Congress. The rules governing franked mail fall into five main categories: limitations on whocan send franked mail; what type can be sent; how muchcan be sent; where it can be sent; and whenit can be sent.
Today, the franking privilege is limited to current and former Members of Congress, Members-elect, the Vice President, and congressional offices such as the Clerk or Sergeant at Arms. In addition, former presidents and vice presidents, and widows of presidents have franking privilege. Earlier iterations of the franking privilege also included soldiers during wartime and the postmaster general.
While the initial privilege included mail that was being sent to and from Members of Congress, today, only mail being sent from Members of Congress and elected officials is privileged. There are two classifications of mail that fall under the franking privilege: “mass mailings,” defined as 500 substantially similar pieces of unsolicited mail sent in the same congressional session, and official mail (responses to constituent correspondence for example). While traditional mail is still used by Members, today there are many more options beyond postal mail. Member communications subjected to the franking privilege include phone calls, video and audio communication, tele-townhalls, emails, and more. Email is by far the most common type of communication currently considered franked mail. Figure 8.1 presents the rapid growth of email communication to Congress, compared to postal mail. The sharp uptick after 1995 is largely attributed to the nationwide growth of internet usage.
Figure 8.1: Email and Postal Mail to Congress, 1995-2011
Source: Data provided by the House Chief Administrative Officer and Office of the Senate Sergeant-At-Arms. Note: Data does not include internal emails sent from one congressional user to another.
But while the mediums are plentiful, there are strict limitations on the message that can be communicated by franked mail—the communication must discuss “official business.” While an “admittedly flexible” definition, the mail cannot be used for campaigns or fundraising, and should be used to “deliver information on the issues pending before Congress.” While the early years of franked mail used postal weight as a form of message limitation, today’s franked postal mail is limited to items that can be sent as letters. This can include newsletters, surveys, and constituent updates.
The amount of mail that can be sent by a Member of Congress is largely restricted by cost. Earlier sessions of Congress, particularly the years between Fiscal Year (FY) 1970 and FY1988, spent a great deal of money on franked mail. These high costs ultimately provoked reforms that are still in place today: limits on individual Members’ franking expenditures, along with required public disclosures on the amount of franked mail a Member’s office sent. After a set of 1995 reforms to further consolidate franking costs, Members’ franking privileges are now included as part of their “Member’s Representational Allowance” (MRA)—effectively a Member’s office budget. The MRA limits are set in place by the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. This accounting change allows Members to spend money that would be otherwise intended for franked mail on other aspects of their office—such as personnel or office supplies. See Chapter 3 for a discussion on removing franking costs from the MRA.
Overall, these reforms, along with the increased use of cheaper, more efficient email communication have led to a decline in the cost of franked mail in the House. Figure 8.2 illustrates patterns of franked mail spending between FY2006 and FY2016. There are two notable trends: first is the general downward trend of overall spending on franked mail. The second is the spike during even years—or “election years”. Concern about franked mail being used to advantage incumbents during an election year led to another set of reforms: stipulations on where and when mail could be sent.
Figure 8.2. Election-Year vs. Non-Election-Year Costs
Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis of U.S. Postal Service Data.
Since 1992, Representatives have been limited to sending franked mail only to constituents who live in their district. There are also rules guarding when the mail can be sent, based on election dates. In 1996, the House set in place a deadline of 90 days prior to an election to send franked mail. These limitations help ensure that franked mail is used to communicate, rather than campaign.
These vast and evolving rules and regulations require a body to responsibly monitor how Members of Congress use their franking privilege. Originally, the U.S. Postal Service served as the main advisory body, but a series of reforms in 1973 established a permanent congressional body to evaluate and regulate franked mail. Today, the Committee on House Administration and House Communication Standards Commission (“the Commission”) serve as the primary gatekeepers of the franking privilege. Of note, one of the Committee’s recommendations outlined in this chapter renamed the House Franking Commission to the House Communication Standards Commission.
Since 1973, the Commission has offered formal and informal advisory positions about whether mail is eligible for the franking privilege after a detailed review using the five criteria outlined above. The Commission considers what photographs can be used, how often the Member’s name is used, and the political nature of the text. In the 106th Congress, the Commission’s responsibilities were further expanded from an optional review period to a required review by the Communication Standards Commission prior to mailing. Today, all mass mail is required to undergo administrative review by the Commission in advance of being sent to constituents.
Given the size of the House, and the growing U.S. population, the Commission is reviewing 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of mail every year. In addition to advising and reviewing franked mail, the Commission handles formal complaints (on average, five complaints each year).
In addition to email, postal mail, tele-townhalls, and other approved forms of franked communication, Members often turn to the Commission for advice on their social media. Today, social media is used by every Member of Congress and is obviously very popular with constituents across the country. Mediums like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube make it easier for Members of Congress to communicate with constituents quickly and personally, and like email, social media has the added benefit of affordability that postal mail does not. Members of Congress use these new mediums: in 2019, Members posted more than 420,000 Tweets from their official accounts—averaging to a total of 1,260 Tweets a day. However, although the Commission reviews social media and digital communications on an advisory basis, these mediums are not technically under its jurisdiction.
Considering the vast and growing use of social media, this discrepancy has created confusion for both the Commission and individual Members of Congress. Updating House franking rules and regulations to reflect the growing use of digital communications was a top priority for the Committee. Given the expertise and jurisdiction of the Communication Standards Commission and the Committee on House Administration, these three organizations worked closely together to develop sensible, transparent, and efficient reforms to modernize the franking privilege. The reforms are outlined below.
The recommendations outlined in this chapter are commonsense reforms that were crafted in close consultation with leadership from the House Communication Standards Commission and the Committee on House Administration to provide Congress and the public with guidance on how to communicate more efficiently and effectively.
By renaming and clarifying the jurisdiction of the Commission to include social media, Members and constituents alike will have much-needed clarity on how these accounts are expected to operate. In addition, technological updates to the franking process itself will provide greater transparency and efficiency for constituents—allowing them to truly interact with their representatives, generating meaningful conversation beyond scripted petitions.
The recommendations presented in this chapter offer a much-needed update to current operating procedures, but also set the stage for continued growth and improvement in constituent communications. These reforms have set in motion the ability for the Commission, and the House more generally, to prepare for the next wave of technology. As Chair Derek Kilmer said in an October 31, 2019 hearing:
“If history is any indicator, communication platforms will continue to rapidly evolve, and Congress needs to adapt so Members can communicate as effectively as possible with the people they represent.”
Chair Derek Kilmer, October 31, 2019
It’s time that our institution reflects the reality of our constituents, and these recommendations are a strong, sensible first step. When Members of Congress can more easily communicate with their constituents—and when constituents have easier access to their representatives—democracy flourishes. A strong republic relies on the people it represents. This requires open and honest communication between Members working in our nation’s capital and the people in districts across the nation who sent them there.