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Kuster's mailings cost taxpayers $293,000 since January 2013

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 21. 2014 7:50PM
The two inside pages of a four-page, full-color brochure prepared, printed and mailed at taxpayer expense by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-2nd District, are seen above. The notice below was printed on the address page of the brochure. 

U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster has spent six times more than the rest of the combined New Hampshire delegation to Congress on taxpayer-funded mass mailings and communications, according to a review of reports submitted by Congress.

Kuster, D-N.H., has spent about $293,000 in taxpayer dollars on so-called "franked" mass mailings and communications since January 2013, according to the House of Representatives' statements of disbursement, which are provided quarterly, and figures provided by her office.

"We believe franked mail is a very important tool that allows Congresswoman Kuster to directly interact with her constituents (and vice versa), and helps her provide information about legislative updates and important constituent services that are available to them (like, for example, if they need help dealing with a federal agency)," Kuster's press secretary, Rosie Hilmer, said in an email.

Of the other three Granite State delegates to Congress, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., followed Kuster in the use of franking privileges, spending $46,268.83 since returning to office in January 2013. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has spent $1,393.37 on such mailings in that time, while Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has spent nothing, according to reports compiled by the Senate and posted online semiannually.

Shea-Porter spent $21,720 on her most recent mailing, a four-page, black-and-white letter detailing her positions and efforts in Congress, according to her office.

"Constituents requested an update from Congresswoman Shea-Porter on the first half of the year. She has a responsibility to report back to constituents, and that's what she did with this informative and no-frills report that does not have a single photo of herself or anyone else," said Ben Wakana, Shea-Porter's communications director.

Franked mail is, at its simplest, mail from members of Congress that is intended to provide constituent or official correspondence. It features a line reading something similar to the line that appears on Kuster's most recent mailing: "This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense."

That line, according to critics of the use of franked mail, is just about the only difference between the type of mailer sent recently by Kuster - a glossy, full-color, large postcard featuring pullout quotes and five photos of Kuster that asks people to visit her website and sign up for an e-newsletter - and promotional campaign mailers.

"Rep. Kuster's recent mailer is shameless campaign mail, and in particular is an affront to New Hampshire taxpayers, coming as a glossy postcard with five pictures of her," said Greg Moore, state director for Americans For Prosperity, a libertarian and conservative policy organization.

Kuster's figure outpaces that of her predecessor, former Republican Rep. Charles Bass, who spent $249,585 in the first 18 months of his last legislative session, which was 2011-12, but is not as much as former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, who spent $429,096.37 in his first 18 months in office.

"Recently, members of Congress have used franked mass mailers as a way to use taxpayer dollars to pay for image-enhancing puff pieces to promote their reelection. This is absolutely an abuse of the trust that the citizens who they claim to represent gave them when they put them in office," Moore said. "Moreover, it's not a Democrat or Republican problem. We've seen both sides of the aisle use these mailers in a way that might conform to ethics guidelines, but is an abject insult to the public, who know campaign mail when they see it."

Shaheen has used franked mass mail just once since January 2013, on 3,526 postcards inviting people in the Keene area to a senior consumer protection information session, said Elizabeth Kenigsberg, her press secretary.

"Our office has sent mailings to invite constituents to attend town hall meetings with Senator Shaheen, office hours with constituent service staff, as well as other informational sessions, including forums to help seniors protect themselves from fraud," Kenigsberg said.

Ayotte, who took office in January 2011, has never used franking privileges to send out a mass mailing, said her press secretary, Liz Johnson. Ayotte uses franked mail only to send direct constituent correspondence and official mail, she said.

"Senator Ayotte strives to be efficient and cost-effective when using taxpayer resources, and that includes our office's constituent correspondence operation," Johnson said. "We use email to correspond as much as possible, which is a faster way to communicate and saves taxpayer dollars."

The issue of franking has come up in New Hampshire politics before, most recently in Shea-Porter's 2010 and 2012 runs for the 1st District seat against Guinta, who is running against Shea-Porter for the third election in a row. Guinta won the 2010 race, while Shea-Porter regained the seat in 2012.

In 2010, Guinta criticized Shea-Porter's use of mass mail as an "abuse of a representative's franking privileges," but a review of the mailing system in 2012 found that Guinta's office spent more money on franked mail than any member of the House in 2011, leading to accusations of hypocrisy from the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Guinta's office responded that he valued constituent service and used the mailings to increase communication to constituents. It added that Guinta slashed his office budget and returned $50,000 to the Treasury.

Hilmer's response was nearly exact two years later.

"Additionally, the Congresswoman actually returned around $50,000 of her office budget to the federal Treasury last year in order to save taxpayer dollars," she said.

The rest of Congress

The offices of Kuster, Shea-Porter, Shaheen and Ayotte provided spending since April 1, as the House website provides figures only up to March 31. As of that date, Kuster had spent $190,459.46 and Shea-Porter $24,998. Shaheen's and Ayotte's amounts hadn't changed, $1,393.37 and zero, respectively.

Kuster's spending up to March 31 is the 30th highest among all 525 members of Congress and the six nonvoting delegates to Congress from such places as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Seventy-seven of those members spent nothing on franked mass mail or communications.

Kuster's spending, while the highest among the state's members of Congress, is outpaced by the members who have spent more than anyone else in Congress: California Republican Rep. Paul Cook, at $362,936.70, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, at $327,634.45, and California Democrat Julia Brownley, at $308,196.87.

Of the top 30, 17 are Republicans and 13 are Democrats. The House spent a total of $26,464,725.69 from January 2013 through March 31, according to the reports.

Among New England's 21 members of the House, Kuster's spending on mass mailings and communications ranks second. Connecticut Rep. Elizabeth Etsy, a Democrat, spent $208,899.27 through March 31, according to the reports. Nine New England House members, all Democrats, spent nothing.

The Senate spends far less than the House, according to the records. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who spent $115,257.18, was the only senator to spend more than $65,000 from January 2013 through March. By contrast, 11 members of the House spent more than Schatz in the fourth quarter of 2013 alone. Eight of those 11 are Democrats and three are Republicans.

On Tuesday, Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would abolish using franking privileges for mass mailings.

"The Franking privilege is a relic of the past, and it's time for Congress to play by the same rules as the families and businesses it represents," Woodall said in a news release.

According to the reports, Woodall spent $206,362.73 and Duckworth $129,069.45 from January 2013 through March 31 sending mass mail and communications.

Of the Senate's 100 members, only 19 used franking privileges to send a mass mailing, according to reports, though staff from all four of New Hampshire's delegation to Congress said the Senate places stricter rules on franking privileges than the House.

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