The Franking Sign Monster
Franking is a venerable term, largely fallen into disuse among modern speakers outside the postal service. It may be better known to readers of Victorian romance novellas, such as those by Barbara McMahon or Christina Dodd.
In them, a genteel husband -– usually a Member of Parliament -– is seen penning a love note to his chère-amie, sealing it up and scrawling his signature across the corner of the envelope. (Contemporary readers are left to their own devices in determining if he is heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail after dropping it off.)
The point of the exercise was to note that the legislator’s missive to his paramour would then be delivered without his having to pay the appropriate postal tax. The franking privilege, as it came to be known, was claimed by the British in the House of Commons, and later adopted by the United States Congress. To prevent theft and abuse of taxpayer funds by limiting the volume and scope of such free mailings, a committee known as the Franking Commission was established in 1991. Being essentially a group of glorified school hall monitors charged with making sure nobody is stealing stamps, it wasn’t viewed as one of the juicy, exciting posts in the House which were likely to fast-track you to a spot on Meet the Press.
It is therefore unsurprising that this particular panel was infrequently found in the news. That changed, however, on July 23, when some GOP congressmen were blocked from sending out to their constituents a flow chart depicting the complex, Byzantine structure of the Democrats’ proposed health care system. It was apparently deemed to be too partisan, by virtue of making the system appear, well… complex and Byzantine.
This was followed in short order by another instance, when Republican Congressman John Carter of Texas was informed that he could not record the introduction to a conference call because of unacceptable language contained in the message. The offending phrase, in this case, was: “House Democrats unveiled a government run health care plan.” He was informed by the esteemed Franking Commission that he could still communicate with the voters of his district, provided he changed the wording to: “The House majority unveiled a public option health care plan.”
Leaving aside for a moment the disturbing implications, the issue at the center of this dispute is a congressional rule which bars franked mail from being “partisan, politicized, or personalized.” This is, as they say, one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but quickly becomes problematic in practice and delivery. Since these rules were last revised in 1997, the bar for judgments regarding the “partisan” nature of franked communications between House members and their constituents has been set quite low out of necessity. Such a system unfortunately relies on the now extinct beast known as common sense, and bears a strong resemblance to Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 Supreme Court protestations on pornography. “I know it when I see it.”
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.