Why one Calif. congressman spends a fortune on snail mail

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57668 full

Are you getting much snail mail these days? If you live near Big Bear, your mailbox probably hasn't been empty. That's because 8th District Congressional representative Paul Cook sends out more mail than anyone else in the House of Representatives.

Some members of Congress spend nothing out of their office budget on mail to constituents.  Others fall in the middle, spending about $50,000 a year. Freshmen spend more than veteran lawmakers. Freshmen in competitive districts spend even more.

Then there's Republican Congressman Paul Cook, who is not in a competitive district, yet spent more than $360,000 dollars on snail mail last year. He says it's all about geography. His 8th District is one of the largest in California. "It goes from basically just north of Palm Springs almost to Lake Tahoe," Cook says. "And getting around there physically is very, very impossible."

Cook says he tries to get home to his district every weekend, but mail is the most cost effective way of communicating with constituents. "We have no choice," he says, "it's either that or put another office up in Mono County. And for the amount of people, and the staff there, it just eats into the budget that you'd use for the other thing."

Cook acknowledges the importance of email and social media, but he says some people like him are still more comfortable communicating on paper. 

But the National Taxpayers Union is not comfortable with the notion of subsidized congressional snail mail, or "franking privileges." Executive Vice President Pete Sepp says it's not fair: "Congress' franking privilege not only has an impact on taxpayers' wallets, but an undue influence by conferring an advantage on incumbents."

That advantage — incumbents get a special allowance to send out their mail, but political challengers have to foot the bill themselves.

Bradford Fitch — head of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, which assists lawmakers on best practices — says franking is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the republic. The idea was that members of Congress "should have the easy ability to conduct business and to be able to send messages and letters to constituents."

Still, there are strings attached. Subsidized mailings are supposed to be official correspondence only: no paying bills or sending Christmas cards. And every mailing to 500 or more constituents has to be reviewed by staffers in the House Administration Committee.

Also, there are strict rules on what you can write. For example, there's a restriction on the number of times you can refer to yourself or any specific lawmaker — eight to be exact.  And that includes the letterhead, the members' signature and his or her name typed under the signature.

Some lawmakers just dip into their own campaign money to pay for snail mail. But, increasingly, they're are turning to social media to communicate.

Republican Tom McClintock of South Lake Tahoe, for example, has more Facebook "likes" than anyone else in the California delegation. His office declined to say why he has 345,135 "likes."

But not everyone is online. Older constituents, poor communities or rural districts with a lack of Internet connectivity may still rely on snail mail. So subsidized or not, Congressional snail mail isn't likely to go away any time soon.

And bottom line, Fitch would like to see more emphasis on what lawmakers are saying, rather than how they deliver the message. He says it's not the vehicle that should be examined to determine if the member is engaged in good communications: "It's the content."

His idea of good communication includes things like the announcement of a town hall meeting, student loan information or even a customer service survey to find out how well the office is responding to constituents. 

So what was included in Congressman Paul Cook's most recent snail mail? Information about legislation he's co-sponsored, but also a survey, asking whether the Department of Veterans affairs was responsive to constituent needs. 

Document: Cook's mailer

California Delegation: Congressional Snail Mail Expenditures

Representative 1st quarter 2014 4th quarter 2013 3rd quarter 2013 2nd quarter 2013 1st quarter 2013
Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) $0 $0 $0 $0 $25,549
Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) $6,116 $52,533 $0 $3,809 $3,641
Ami Bera (D-Los Angeles) $77,938 $52,515 $27,682 $26,876 $0
Julia Brownley (D-Ventura) $22,947 $285,250 $0 $0 $0
Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) $24,936 $26,941 $16,452 $0 $19,805
John Campbell (R-Irvine) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) $21,496 $90,678 $0 $0 $0
Judy Chu (D-El Monte) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Paul Cook (R-Barstow, Big Bear) $122,679 $130,531 $77,137 $32,590 $0
Jim Costa (D-Fresno) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Susan Davis (D-San Diego) $30,389 $7,016 $0 $10,410 $0
Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) $39,213 $17,081 $20,876 $22,060 $45,124
Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) $79,314 $20,501 $50,703 $18,044 $48,758
Rep. Janice Hahn (D- Carson) $35,080 $27,802 $0 $0 $0
Mike Honda (D-San Jose) $27,606 $421 $0 $0 $0
Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego) $1,833 $0 $0 $0 $0
Darrell Issa (R-Vista) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Doug LaMalfa (R-Redding) $24,762 $10,804 $0 $0 $0
Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) $494 $43,919 $0 $0 $0
Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Buck McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) $0 $49,085 $0 $0 $0
Gary Miller (R-San Bernardino) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
George Miller (D-Martinez) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Grace Napolitano (D-El Monte) $5,780 $0 $0 $0 $0
Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Montclair) $28,361 $2,288 $1,606 $0 $0
Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) $15,746 $0 $1,621 $0 $0
Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Scott Peters (D-San Diego) $35,583 $87,265 $27,092 $28,244 $0
Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) $61,682.00 $10,942 $9,257 $9,281 $37,463
Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Springs) $74,732 $91,517 $99,043 $0 $0
Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood) $0 $0 $11,838 $2,947 $943
Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) $0 $32,928 $12,484 $35,151 $0
Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) $117,371 $56,503 $48,430 $3,598 $0
Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Eric Swalwell (D-Livermore) $50,440 $68,904 $58,811 $39,192 $24,038
Mark Takano (D-Riverside) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
David Valadao (R-Hanford) $1,030 $0 $3,166 $1,484 $0
Juan Vargas (D-Chula Vista) $63,348 $99,007 $0 $0 $0
Rep. Maxine Waters (D–Los Angeles) $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) $0 $31,478 $0 $0 $0

Source: Statement of Disbursements of the House as Compiled by the Chief Administrative Officer/Jan. 1, 2014, to March 31, 2014.

 

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