Senators Don't Write Home As They Once Did

Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) lambasted the Washington-based citizens lobby Common Cause late last month for its attempt to stop U.S. Senators from distributing newsletters and other mass mailings postage-free through the use of the mailing "frank," or signature placed on a letter to indicate free postage.

"I would insist that if a member of Congress is truly to represent his constituents, he must communicate with them," Scott said in a floor speech. "What Common Cause seeks is to make all of us who are elected to office, and who have the responsibilities of office, unable to communicate with the millions of people who elected us to that office," he said.

Scott joined Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), three other Democrats and two Republican colleagues in securing passage of a resolution addressed to the Common Cause campaign against newsletters and the mailing frank. The resolution, S. Res. 411, asserts, in part, that dissemination of newsletters about federal legislation is "part of the official business of a Senator under the Constitution."

"Such a declaration is intended to cover services to constituents ... including informing constituents through newsletters, news releases and speeches," Mansfield said prior to the unanimous approval of the measure. "These activities are clearly acts within the official business of a senator and may be properly conducted by mailings under the frank unless the mailing also contains personal or political references."

To the consternation of most senators, Common Cause has held that all newsletters, regardless of content, constitute "political matter." It claims mass mailings from Capitol Hill provide politicians added public exposure--at the public's expense. "Mass mailings do more to promote the re-election of a senator than merely to communicate," Common Cause attorney Ken Guido said in an interview last month. "Every time a newsletter is mailed, it serves as a detriment to any potential political challenger. It's pure promotion."

In an attempt to remove this political advantage, Common Cause has filed in U.S. District Court a suit against the Postmaster General and Secretary of Treasury to have the court declare the franking privilege unconstitutional. The suit specifically seeks the wholesale elimination of section 3210 of the U.S. Code that provides for Congressional use of franked mail. Attorney Guido said a Common Cause win in court would disallow any free mailings by senators, newsletters and individual correspondence included. "We're not after the single piece of mail, but if the Senate wants to retain the frank for that kind of thing, it's going to have to rewrite the whole law," he said.

Sen. John V. Tunney (D-Calif.), who is up for reelection this fall, has been cited by potential challengers as exemplary of an incumbent who used franked newsletters for political advantage. Tunney last fall sent a newsletter to 1.3 million persons in California that contained three pictures of Tunney and more than 60 personal references to him in the text. At last fall's 10-cent postage rate, the cost to taxpayers for Tunney's mailing totaled $130,000.

To bolster its court case, Common Cause has subpoenaed 100 Senate employees--administrative assistants to each Senator--to provide information about the computer codes each office uses for its mass mailing list. The lobby group has contended that senators have devised computer mailing lists that enable them to target groups for specialized mailings. The subpoenas, served at the beginning of the year, sparked talk among Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses that a precedent may have been set for the acquisition of office materials by private individuals. Senators now fear that their office operations may be disrupted by future subpoenas and civil suits.

Senate leaders agreed to introduce S. Res. 411 because, as Mansfield said, the Senate should claim "its traditional privilege that information secured by employees of the Senate pursuant to their official duties may not be revealed without the consent of the Senate. Having supplied the information relevant to the use of the frank, the Senate should resist any further intrusion in the operations of the Senate and individual Senate offices," Mansfield said.

In his floor speech, Minority Leader Scott also insisted that the regulation of internal operations be left solely to the Senate. "The Constitution imposes on us ... the responsibility of keeping our own house in order," he said. "We know that we hold a public trust. We know that we must not permit public moneys to be used for mere personal or purely political purposes."

To some degree, the Senate has attempted to dampen Common Cause criticism by regulating the content of newsletters and other large franked mailings. Until this year, the Senate regulations were so loose that an occasional proliferation of blatantly election-oriented newsletters was not uncommon. A close examination of Senate newsletters issued in the last year show a wide variety of styles and content, ranging from self-serving puffery to informative discussions of issues with a fair presentation of contrasting views. The style often has reflected each senator's self-perception--whether he views himself chiefly as a public "educator" or as a "promoter" and "persuader."

The recently-passed Senate version of the new Federal Election Commission statute contained a new rule that would hurt perennial Senate "promoters." The Senate bill changed to 60 days instead of the previous 28, the time prior to a primary and general election in which franked newsletters and mailings of over 500 pieces are prohibited. Common Cause has said it is pleased with this change, but has called for further efforts to curb the advantages of incumbency. In recent years, Senate rules have limited the size and number of photographs per newsletter. Rules also comply with the U.S. Code, dictating that "self-advertisement for political purposes" is prohibited, and that newsletters deal only with the "impact of laws, reports of official action and legislation." Prohibited also are any photo credits and personal attacks on other senators.

Effective January 1 this year has been a new Senate rule, aimed to tighten the restriction of newsletter content to legislative rather than "political" matters. Personal references to a senator--his name, any personal pronoun or the ubiquitous "The Senator"--now are limited to no more than five per page. Predictably, this limit surprised a number of Senate press secretaries, especially those accustomed to a writing style peppered with phrases like "I believe that..." and "I have sponsored a bill that would...." The Senate Select Committee on Standards and Conduct ("The Ethics Committee") agreed to this new rule last November 4, but did not notify Senate offices until the effective date of January 1. The committee action came in apparent response to Common Cause criticism of newsletters, but lobby group spokesmen claim no direct involvement in Senate rule-making.

Some senators and their staff lately have begun to question the merits of the restriction, wondering privately how the committee arrived at the figure five. The press secretary to a prominent Southern senator asked recently, "If I inadvertently write down six references on a page, does that make the newsletter a piece of campaign literature? Does a limit of five make a newsletter any less political?" The limit of five references per page holds, "no matter how deserving or stylistically appropriate," according to the text of the rule.

"That forced us to change things a bit, and you can tell the difference between our newer newsletters and our older ones," Grace McConnell, press secretary to Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) said recently. "I have to be very conscious about this." Proxmire's office issues a newsletter each month.