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The Franking Sign Monster

California’s Dan Lungren, senior Republican on the Franking Commission, quickly issued a statement saying, "We have never before censored anybody's presentation of facts this way.” He further points out that the committee has yet to censor any Democratic mailings claiming various numbers of American jobs created by the economic stimulus package, though Republicans question the veracity of those figures, to put it kindly.  The response from Susan Davis (D-Calif), chairwoman of the commission, was to say that they were working “in good faith to negotiate a compromise with Republicans” over the barred mailings. Wasn’t this supposed to be an independent, bi-partisan group working outside of party tribal interests?

One anecdotal example of past usage was a mailing received in our district during the early years of the Iraq war. Our congressman, a Democrat, sent out franked mailers which included the phrase “the invasion and occupation of Iraq.” Being an opponent of the war myself, I concurred with the description, but I also realized that it infuriated many Republicans who supported the effort. They strove mightily to counter such characterizations by consistently using the phrase “the liberation of Iraq.” What we did not see, though, was an attempt to use the Franking Commission to force the Democrats into using the word “liberation.” Had they done so, howls of protest would have rightly emerged. Any attempt at forcing Republicans to use “invasion and occupation” would have also been correctly eschewed.

While judging this scenario we should be careful not to trend too far toward describing this as some sort of impingement upon the free speech rights of the representatives. They may still mail out material which is actually biased if they wish (within reasonable legal limits), but must pay for the postage or the cost of the calls through other funding, rather than having them franked. But as long as the mailing or conference call recording is making some attempt at communicating with their voters and providing information on issues which are of interest to them, restrictions based on franking rules need to be applied with the lightest hand possible.

Clearly, we must be vigilant when it comes to the abuse of public funds, even in small amounts. But there is also an obvious need for us to be able to distinguish between a member of parliament filching a few pennies to pursue the usufructs of gallantry with his demimondaine and congressmen speaking plain language to the residents of their districts. I fear, however, that the challenge of reigning in such overreach will be more than this Congress can manage.