Franking the Taxpayer


Newly elected House Whip Newt Gingrich (R–Ga.) is upset with the House Democratic leadership. Again.

Gingrich first gained the national spotlight in 1985 when he drew then-Speaker Tip O'Neill before television cameras in a rancorous debate on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Last year, Gingrich initiated the House Ethics Committee's investigation of Speaker Jim Wright.

Gingrich's latest target is a planned increase in Congress's franking budget. The current 1990 budget calls for $114 million to send out "official mail," at taxpayer expense. That's almost double the $61 million allocated for franking privileges in 1989. (Although legislators aren't supposed to use the frank to send campaign literature, official mailings keep their names in front of voters, and the amount of taxpayer-funded mail usually doubles in election years.)

Gingrich "would definitely like to see the taxpayer save some money on junk mail pieces like newsletters," says press secretary Sheila R. Ward. Congress sends out 12,000 pieces of mail for every letter it receives.

If Gingrich is looking for another issue to advance his political career, he may have found it. In February, intense public pressure forced Congress to give up a planned 50 percent pay raise. And while legislators insist that constituents appreciate the news their mailings bring, the one time that voters were asked their opinion on franked mail, they voted no. Last fall, 58 percent of California voters approved an initiative that banned all mailings of more than 200 pieces by state legislators.