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4/22/2012 11:39:00 AM
Policy change allows for tracking U.S. House mail

Thomas B. Langhorne, Evansville Courier & Press

—Assessing the total costs of taxpayer-funded congressional mail depends on which set of numbers you use.

Relying primarily on U.S. Postal Service data, the Congressional Research Service pegs the cost of all mail sent from all U.S. House and Senate accounts in 2011 at $20.4 million. The corresponding total in 2010, an election year, was $26.9 million.

The Committee on House Administration says mass mail-only quarterly House spending reports include data the Congressional Research Service does not — printing, production and distribution costs as well as postage costs. Using those reports, the Courier & Press found House members spent $6.9 million on mass mail in the final three quarters of 2011. The first quarter is not included because previous House reporting policies make that comparison impossible.

In an attempt to provide a more comprehensive accounting of spending on all forms of mass communication — virtually any means of communication available to the public in the marketplace — the House in January 2009 directed members to begin reporting the volume and cost of all communications and not mass mailings alone. That was still the case in the first quarter of 2011, after which the House directed that members report volume and costs of mass communications and mass mailings separately for greater transparency and accuracy.

Rep. Todd Young, a Republican who represents Indiana's 9th District, ranked 7th in mass mail spending among 445 individuals who served last year in the 435-seat House. Trevor Foughty, a spokesman for Young, said the freshman congressman's spending on mail reflects his "focus on constituent communication."

"Because our district is rural, and because the Indiana Attorney General prohibits us from doing most tele-townhalls, our constituent communication is through email and mail, and not through automated calls, TV or radio like many other offices do," Foughty said in an email message.

The Attorney General's office said the state's robo-call law applies to congressional offices.

House members are not required to specify what percentage or amount of mass mail expenditures pay for glossy newsletters, letters or any other specific communication. Nailing down exact costs is further complicated by the fact that bills associated with taxpayer-funded mail that are incurred late in a given quarter may not arrive before House members report their quarterly expenditures, necessitating adjustments in subsequent reports.

Capturing the costs of unsolicited "mass communications" has been problematic compared to Postal Service data-driven mail costs. The mass communications costs are sometimes theoretical and difficult to estimate, such as the listenership for a radio advertisement alerting constituents to a town hall meeting or the readership for a newspaper ad. In addition, because it relies in part on self-reporting, House offices inevitably do not always report expenditures in the same way.

The Congressional Research Service, which works exclusively for Congress, has offered statistics to mitigate the depth of spending on taxpayer-funded official mail.

The agency reports that official mail costs in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 amounted to less than one percent of the total budget in each year for the entire legislative branch. It points out that a series of reforms and new requirements for public disclosure over the past 25 years have greatly reduced overall costs. Using fiscal year numbers, the agency reports the 109th Congress (2005-2006) spent a combined $51.9 million on postage, compared to $177.4 million in the 101st Congress (1987-1988).

Related Stories:
• State lawmakers spent $5 million on constituent mail in 2011

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