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Franking Privilege: Definition
Franking privilege allows for members of Congress and their staff to send mail to their constituents or supporters without having to pay postage. This allows for Congress to be able to communicate more effectively with their supporters. Congress will then pay back the Post Office with money from the legislative branch. Government regulations are in place to ensure proper use of this privilege.
Franking Privilege: Background
Franking privilege first occurred in 1660 in Great Britain. It was then carried over to the United States. In 1775, the First Continental Congress passed legislation that allowed free postage for members of Congress. Franking privilege has gone through many regulations since it first passed in 1775. Here are some of the reforms.
Franking privilege was banned from 1873 to 1895. When it was re-established in 1895, restrictions were put onto the privilege. Congress members could send mail, under one ounce to their constituents, government officials, or any person as long as it was official business.
Several more changes were made over these years, but in 1971, the Post Office decided they would no longer monitor the franking system, not wanting to pass judgment on Congress members. This led to a series of lawsuits accusing congressmen of abusing the privilege.
Tougher regulations were put in place from 1973 to 1977. In 1973, regulation was passed to prevent mass mailing 500 similar pieces of mail within 28 days of a primary or general election, if the congressman was a candidate. The Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards was created through this regulation with the purpose of monitoring franking among Congress members. After an administrative review was conducted, the Senate followed the recommendations suggested in the review by changing the mass mailing ban from 28 days to 60 days, banning private funding for franking material, and making it a requirement to make postal patron mailings public knowledge.
In 1986, an allowance for franking privilege was established, along with public disclosure of individual member's mailing costs. In 1990, the House created separate allowances for the members and also made it mandatory that mail costs were made public. Under this regulation, the postmaster general was required to monitor franking, inform members of their monthly usage of their franking privilege, and block any franked mail that exceeded the amount allowed to members. In 1994, it was established that mass mailing costs could not surpass $50,000 per session in Congress. In 1995, the Member's Representational Allowance (MRA) was created to allow overlap in funding in member's finances. In 1999, the House changed regulations so that funds from the MRA could be used without limitation in any category of spending. In 1996, the mass mailing deadline was amended again, from 60 days to 90 days.
Who Has Franking Privilege?
Here are some examples of people who possess franking privilege:
- The Vice President has the same privileges and restrictions as Congress members.
- Congressional officers, like the Secretary of the Senate, Sergeant at Arms of the Senate, elected officers in the House, and legislative counsels of the House and Senate, all have franking privilege.
- Former members of Congress have franking privilege up until 90 days after leaving office.
- Members-elect have the same privilege as Congress members in office.
- Relatives of members of Congress get that privilege when the member dies in office.
- Former presidents and widows of presidents have franking privilege as long as it's non-political mail.
- Executive branch officials have franking privilege for official government correspondence.
- Postmasters also have franking privilege for official government correspondence.
- Soldiers are occasionally granted franking privilege in times of conflict.
Example of Franking Privilege
The case of Rising v. Brown is an example of where franking privilege was violated. John Tunney and George Brown, Jr. were both senate candidates in the primary election that was held on June 2, 1970. Two weeks prior to the election, Brown sent out 3,000 postcards to voters throughout California. The postcards included a 9-question survey about environmental pollution in California.
Brown used his franking privilege to send the postcards. Tunney filed for a restraining order against Brown and his aides on the basis that Brown was using the postcards to aid his campaign. Brown claimed he was sending out the postcards as part of his duties as a member of the House Science and Astronautics Committee. The court concluded the material sent by Brown resembled campaign material and not official business material. The court ruled in Tunney's favor and Brown was banned from using his franking privilege for the duration of the campaign.
All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned. As we learned, franking privilege essentially allows for free postage for Congress members and their staff. It also includes the vice president, former Congress members, members-elect, surviving relatives of Congress members, former presidents and widows of presidents, executive branch officials, postmasters, and soldiers. Franking privilege has gone through many reforms since its approval in 1775. The most recent reforms cover cost of the franking privilege, disclosure, mass mailing and campaigns, and monitoring efforts. Franking privileges allow for easier correspondence among those who have the privilege and their constituents.
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