Michele Bachmann speaks to national TV audiences an average of once every nine days, but the Minnesota congresswoman makes extra-sure that voters in her district hear from her directly: She sent more than 1 million email messages or print mailings to them last quarter using her congressional franking privilege.
Only six others in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives can make that claim.
The million-franking club is exclusively Republican and mostly Southern, including (besides Bachmann) two representatives from Florida (Vern Buchanan and Ginny Brown-Waite), and one each from Georgia (John Barrow), Texas (Pete Olson), Oklahoma (Tom Cole) and California (Dan Lungren).
The rest of Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation wasn’t nearly as moved to communicate. Freshman Republican Erik Paulsen led the pack with 463,607 messages sent from July through September – not even half Bachmann’s 1,000,534. His GOP colleague, John Kline, sent 280,115. Among Democrats, Betty McCollum led with 119,380. Tim Walz sent 105,174, Jim Oberstar sent 1,595, and Keith Ellison and Collin Peterson tallied zero: neither sent any one communication to more than 500 people, the minimum tally to qualify for the House’s recordkeeping.
Bachmann’s voice will ring out Monday at a rally under the Minnesota State Capitol dome for a constitutional cap on state government spending. But the U.S. government has spent more on her franking privilege so far this year than for any other Minnesotan in the U.S. House: $105,581, or nearly 10 percent of her office’s total expenses – a proportion that’s also tops in the state’s House delegation.
Bachmann’s pedal-to-the-metal franking has attracted scrutiny since arrival in Congress in 2006. Communications from her office that push limits of one kind or another continue to draw complaints.
Last month, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) complained to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) that Bachmann used her congressional website to draw people to a rally against health-care reform on the U.S. Capitol steps, in violation of House rules. (CREW’s complaint didn’t include the revelation in a Minnesota newspaper that Bachmann’s office steered callers to buses to attend the rally.)
In July, local bloggers filed a complaint over Bachmann’s use of government email to benefit a political organization, in this case the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA). The OCE referred the matter to the authority that governs franking, the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards.
By the end of her first six months in Congress, Bachmann already led the Minnesota delegation in spending on constituent communications, with a cost per mailing of 46 cents per piece – about twice the price others from the state were spending.
This year’s third-quarter report, the first to be made available online, shows a cost of less than 18 cents per household for franked communication. Bachmann has been using an alternative to traditional mailings for reaching people in her district – so-called “tele-townhalls.”
Production costs for glossy mailings that once dominated her expense reports have been partly replaced by spending on mass-dialing telephone technology. From July through September, Bachmann paid tele-townhall vendor Citizen Dialog $21,500. That’s $10,000 more than she paid the U.S. Postal Service over the same period for franked mailings.
In using tele-townhall calls largely in lieu of holding actual townhall meetings, Bachmann follows the lead of Kline, who was on the first call by tele-townhall pioneer Lungren in 2006.