Outdated rules are seen as the main barrier to modern communications on Capitol Hill, a challenge the Franking Commission has recently attempted to address with its new communications standards. A lion’s share of 78% of House staff (surveyed mostly before the new rules had been handed down) agreed that House communications rules “are outdated and in need of a major overhaul” versus 12% who said they “work well and are not in need of a major overhaul.” When asked to describe the main obstacles in their own words, 40% of staff volunteered challenges related to franking and other rules restrictions.
These comments subdivide into two main challenge areas: outdated rules and a slow approval process.
House staff found franking rules to be outdated, lacking in specific guidance, and inconsistent across communications mediums. Content is thoroughly regulated to prevent any appearance of campaign activity, a laudable goal, but this often extends to policing specific language or policy critiques that are fair game elsewhere, such as a speech on the floor of the House. During the Obama Administration, Democrats on the Commission initially objected to the use of the word “Obamacare” to describe the Affordable Care Act, leading to political battles on the Commission.
As one staff member put it, “The rules on what we can and can’t say are arbitrary and not well defined. The restrictions on how many people we can contact and when things need to go through franking make it difficult to provide timely updates to people outside of our subscriber list.”
“The rules on what we can and can’t say are arbitrary and not well defined. The restrictions on how many people we can contact and when things need to go through franking make it difficult to provide timely updates to people outside of our subscriber list.”
—- Republican communications director
Others cite vague social media guidelines and a reluctance to provide direction before an office goes through the work of producing a finished piece. One staffer cited “an extreme lack of guidelines on digital communications methods including social media” and one office said they rely on outside counsel to help them navigate ethics and franking rules, as regulators themselves won’t engage in hypotheticals or provide advance guidance. Indeed, in our survey, updated rules taking into account the rise of social media and mobile phones was one of the most popular reform ideas tested, second only to increasing House member office budgets.
Even when offices are clear on what the rules are, they are often frustrated by a slow approval process. “I believe that partisanship on the committee has made it nearly impossible to get anything through approvals in less than a week,” relayed one staff member. “It used to be that a good piece could sail through in 2 days or less. This makes it hard to be responsive to what’s going on in the world.” Multiple staff members relayed that approval delays frustrated their ability to communicate emergency information to constituents during natural disasters. Even though such pieces were typically expedited by the Commission, they still had to go through the approval process.
Possible Reforms: The View from the Hill
Having offered their perspective on the challenges faced by communicators, we also asked about potential policy changes, covering changes in House rules and budgetary issues.
Two items tested clearly stood out: Increasing the Members’ Representational Allowance, or the House member office budget, with 88% calling this an extremely or very important priority, and rewriting franking content guidelines to better reflect the rise of social media and mobile phones, a high priority of 82%. While formatting rules have been relaxed in the guidelines that went into effect early this year, the rules provide no added clarity on social media.
The third most popular idea tested to relax current content guidelines in exchange for public disclosure (63%) with a lesser number, supporting removing them entirely (49%). Raising the staff cap from the current 18 was seen as an extremely or very important priority by 49% and establishing a single body to regulate House communications, which the House has taken steps towards, was similarly prioritized by 45%.