MILLIONS of dollars in franking or free mailings are going out this election year, sent by members of Congress who are dispatching self-promoting material to voters outside their present congressional districts.
Now, a bipartisan coalition of three organizations is asking the federal court to cancel that enormous flow of taxpayer money: the Public Citizen, the National Taxpayers Union, and the Coalition to End the Permanent Congress. The groups are suing to block members of Congress from using their franking privileges for districts they do not yet represent.
"We're arguing the [franking] statute is an unconstitutional, unjustified subsidy to incumbents and disadvantages challengers without any legal justification," says Paul Wolfson, a lawyer for Ralph Nader's public-interest group, Public Citizen.
The current law allows House members to use their franking privileges for mass mailings where they will have to run this fall because of redistricting after the 1990 census, but which they do not now represent. "It's very widespread," says Mr. Wolfson. "It's explicitly allowed by the statute, so it's an explicit invitation to members of Congress to do it."
"Lots of challengers find the frank the single greatest handicap in running for Congress," says Wolfson. "It reaches every single one of [a district's residents] by direct mail... In some cases for each congressman it represents over $100,000 for each district."
Free mailing is one of the most expensive "perks" in Congress. Last year, the budget was $30 million; in this election year, it's $80 million.
Peter Sepp, director of public relations for the National Taxpayers Union, says he's received complaints from NTU members in more than two dozen congressional districts complaining about it and adds, "I think it's possible it amounts to a $4 million to $10 million subsidy."
Mr. Sepp says, "Basically we think free mailing privileges amount to a free ride for incumbents at incredible expense: free media exposure, free press coverage. There is no technical provision of the law that bars them from doing it."
He says the constitutionality of franking process needed to be challenged on the grounds of free speech: "Constitutionally, taxpayers have a right to be represented by members of Congress and elect that member. We don't think it's a legitimate extension of political power to mail to people they hope to represent. There's no justification for it other than crass political methods."
The head of the third party in the lawsuit on franking is Lionel Kunst, co-chairman of the Coalition to End the Permanent Congress, based in Kansas City, Mo. He says, "We've been wanting to sue on the whole franking privilege. The legals say, `Let's hit them on this first.' When they send literature into areas that are not part of their district they're sending it there for one purpose: that's self-promotion."
One of the members of the house who disagrees with the suit is Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas, whose press secretary, Robert Mansker, explains, "Yes, he has used the franking privilege in response to the new areas added to the district. The rules of the House have allowed it for many years, and anything sent from the House has to be cleared by the bipartisan Franking Commission. So long as a member follows the rules the mailings are appropriate."
There has been some heated discussion in Congress, too, over this use of the franking privilege, but so far it hasn't been strong enough to overcome the tendency to continue the privilege until September, which is the cut-off date for mass mailings in this election year.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R) of California has offered a franking-reform proposal. It prevents incumbents from sending taxpayer-financed mailings outside their district. The bill, which has 87 cosponsors, has yet to pass.
If the suit in federal court goes as planned, Public Citizen's Wolfson estimates it could stop soon. "We hope in the next couple of weeks to file a motion for a preliminary injunction," he says. "If the court grants a preliminary injunction at the end of June, it could stop it right away."
Wolfson says that if the suit wins, members of Congress would not be asked to pay back money used for franking. "We're just asking them to stop doing it," says Wolfson. "From now to September the use of the frank is heaviest, and we want them to stop before the damage is done." He adds that they're not suing individual congresssmen, either: "The problem is with the system, not with the members."