Increase opportunities for constituents to communicate with their Representatives.
The franking privilege exists to encourage and facilitate constituent communication, but current regulations have ultimately made sustained communication more difficult. Current regulations require Members to get approval from the Commission for each unsolicited communication with constituents, even if it’s just to provide an update on a piece of legislation on which they have already communicated. But true communication requires the ability to interact and exchange messages several times—and feedback is an essential part of democracy. As Dr. Matthew Glassman testified before the Committee:
“Member constituent communication is a building block of representative democracy. If information about legislative activity cannot easily flow from members to constituents, citizens will be less capable of joint policy judgments about congressional action and electoral judgments about Members. Likewise, if constituents cannot easily communicate preferences to Members, congressional action is less likely to reflect public opinion.”
Matthew Glassman, October 31, 2019
Not only is sustained communication important for Members of Congress to receive feedback on their legislative activity; it’s an essential part of civic education for constituents. Legislating is a complex process, and it’s important for Members to be able to update their constituents at each stage of a bill’s development—from introduction in committee, to amendments, to a floor vote. Yet Members of Congress lack the ability to have sustained, ongoing interaction with their constituents.
Several witnesses before the Committee reiterated the importance of robust, ongoing constituent communication for Members of Congress and constituents alike. Dr. Michael Neblo, Director of Ohio State’s Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability, testified on some best practices identified in his work on constituent communication:
“We found that many people seem ill-informed, not because they don't care, but because they believe it is not worth their time to stay informed, because nobody will listen anyway. But when they think that their Member really will listen, they are quite willing and able to become informed… There is a dimension of quality that gets added when you have a broader cross section of your constituency involved.“
Dr. Michael Neblo, June 5, 2019
The need for quality over quantity was also emphasized by Marci Harris, CEO and co-founder of POPVOX. In particular, she noted that the Commission was in a unique position to encourage quality communication with constituents:
“People have fewer sources of information now about their local school board or city council, but they can spend 24 hours a day hearing about the latest battles at the national level. And you are perceived as their only outlet for addressing these issues that they care about.
“So, this act, especially in a time of disinformation, that you can't share untrue, overtly political, or personal information through franked communication, I think, is something that should be emphasized almost like a better housekeeping seal that constituents can understand is a protection for them.”
Marci Harris, June 5, 2019
And Members themselves reflected on the importance of sustained constituent communication:
“I think the increase in the number of emails and correspondence that Congress gets and other branches of government, I am sure too, is indicative of the hunger out there for people to be involved. And so, it is a good thing, and it is a good thing to try to address how we can improve their ability to engage and our ability to respond.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, June 5, 2019
Thus, the Committee suggested two changes to improve constituency communication by allowing sustained, multiple communications. First, the franking privilege should be modernized to allow Members to provide updates on issues they have already communicated on without requiring approval from the Franking Commission. The Commission should establish how this sustained communication is regulated.
Second, the method of communication should make it easier to communicate with Members. Currently, Members can communicate easily with constituents who have willingly opted-in to e-newsletters without review from the Commission. This privilege should be expanded to other forms of communications, including text messages and phone calls. Members should be able to communicate with constituents in the mode that constituents prefer. The Committee and Commission suggested that the ability to quickly communicate with constituents, without the step of a Commission review, should be updated to include other forms of communications beyond subscription email. This recommendation is currently in place, as new regulations now permit unsolicited follow-up communication.