The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress marked Halloween by holding its 12th hearing, “Congress and the Frank: Bringing Congressional Mailing Standards into the 21st Century.”
Sound boring? On a typical day, it might have been, but in a nod to the holiday, Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer set a light-hearted tone by noting that they had been thinking of calling the hearing “Franking-stein: How the House’s Ghoulish Mailing Standards Have Haunted Members for Decades.”
He also said that he was dressed as “America’s most maligned superhero, Congress-Man,” Congress-Man, he noted, is “able to fly across the country in six hours on Alaska Airlines,” a reference to his transcontinental journey to his district in Washington state.
(Though he said the hearing’s topic was “inside baseball,” he did not refer to the Washington Nationals’ World Series victory the night before. Strike one against the Chairman for failing to laud the home team?)
But once the epic puns died down, the Committee discussed a variety of issues related to mass communications with constituents. Among other things, they explored what kinds of communications Members should be required to submit to for approval, what rules should be developed to govern Member use of social media, and the relationship between campaign and government-sponsored communications.
One witness, Matt Glassman, a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute, described Member-constituent communications as “one of the building blocks of a representative democracy.”
“If information about legislative activity cannot easily flow from Members to constituents, citizens will be less capable of drawing policy judgments regarding congressional actions or electoral judgments about Members. Likewise, if constituents cannot easily communicate preferences to Members, congressional action is less likely to reflect popular opinion,” he said.
Federal law and House rules regulate official congressional communications. Today, the House Franking Commission, a body of the Committee on House Administration, sets franking rules, provides Members guidance, and approves mass mailings that Members would like to send. According to the Franking Commission manual, a mass mailing is a communication where 500 or more items consisting of “substantially identical content” are sent within a session of Congress. (Messages sent in response to communications are not considered mass mailings.)
Yet there is concern that current franking rules inhibit outreach to constituents. Effective social media communication demands authenticity on the part of the Member of Congress. Constituents want to know their representatives and understand their concerns. However, according to a 2016 Congressional Institute-Echelon Insights study A Connected Congress, “unclear ethics rules” limit the effectiveness of congressional social media use. The report states:
The ambiguity of ethics rules poses challenges to messaging, content, and strategy leaving staffers to grapple with questions of what kind of authentic and personable photos may or may not be used, how Facebook ads can be used, and which rules apply to differing platforms.
The franking regulations, first written when there was only the printed letter, are overly restrictive when it comes to social media and other electronic forms of communication.
The Commission’s current Chair, Representative Susan Davis (D-CA), and her immediate predecessor, Representative Rodney David (R-IL), who also sits on the Select Committee, both testified about issues they saw with the franking process.
Representative Susan Davis said that franking rules were originally meant to prevent Members from abusing their privileges by mailing campaign, personal, or commercial items. Nonetheless, they have had the “unintended side effect of slowing things down and preventing Members from writing the way they speak when they conduct official business,” she said.
After reviewing the rules, the Commission determined that they should be simplified and made more transparent. “Greater public transparency ensures greater Member accountability,” she said.
The Franking Commission is in the process of revising its regulations, but Representative Susan Davis asked that the Select Committee issue recommendations that were beyond the Commission’s purview. For instance, she asked that the Commission formally have jurisdiction over all digital mass communications. Originally the Commission was formed to review postal mass mailings but has also assumed responsibility over digital communications. At the same time, she noted in her written testimony that “the jurisdiction for implementing official communications rules is split between multiple offices.”
Representative Rodney Davis said that the existing franking rules were “burdensome” and “very bureaucratic.”
“We’re literally measuring the size of pictures and counting the number of times the letter ‘I’ is used,” he said.
His statement, presumably, refers to how the Commission enforces rules governing photos and wording in the mass mailings. The Franking Commission manual limits the size and number of photos depicting a Member in a mailing. For instance, a masthead photo on an 8.5 x 11 inch page may not exceed 6 square inches. It also warns against a Member referring to themselves too much in a mailing. Words like “I”, “me” and others, “for the most part, should not appear on the average more than eight times per page,” according to the manual.
Representative Rodney Davis also called for greater transparency and accountability to the public. “I also believe that with greater transparency comes a check and balance with constituents and the American taxpayer that should replace the role of staff here in DC measuring pictures and counting I’s,” he said.