Franking Privilege

The franking privilege, enacted in 1775, allows members of Congress to mail their letters without postage. In lieu of a stamp, members instead use a stamp consisting of their signatures. Congress, at a later time, and through the legislative branch, then reimburses the U.S. Postal Service for their franked mail. To explore this concept, consider the following franking privilege definition.

Definition of Franking Privilege

Noun

  1. The right granted to members of Congress and their staff to send mail without the need to pay postage.

Origin

November 8, 1775        Congressional legislation

Congressional Franking Privilege

A frank is a copy of a Senator’s signature that is stamped on the corner of an envelope, taking the place of a stamp. The congressional franking privilege is a benefit provided to members of Congress that allows them to send mail with these franks stamped onto the envelopes in lieu of paying for postage, for the purpose of facilitating communication with their constituents. Congress then reimburses the U.S. Postal Service through the legislative branch for all of their franked mail.

The congressional franking privilege was created in 1775 as a way to keep Congress’ constituents better informed of the goings-on within their government. As would be expected, the use of the congressional franking privilege is regulated by federal law, as well as by the rules and regulations of both the House and the Senate.

History of the Frank

The history of the frank traces back to 17th century Great Britain. The British House of Commons introduced the frank in 1660, allowing many government officials to take advantage of the “free mail” system it had created. In 1775 America, the First Continental Congress passed a law that allowed members Congress mail privileges so that they could communicate more efficiently with their supporters.

The history of the frank in the new nation began when the first Congress of the United States enacted a franking law in 1789, and franking has remained a valuable governmental tool for more than 200 years. Throughout history, however, the franking statutes have been both loosened and restricted to meet the ever-changing needs of the country. The history of the frank saw franking privileges abolished during the 19th century on several different occasions, but they were eventually reinstated each time.

Regulation of the Franking Privilege

As regulation of the franking privilege was being ironed out over the years, certain issues arose that needed to be dealt with. There were two fundamental flaws with the franking law that caused a majority of these issues. First, there was no way to know whether or not a particular piece of mail could legitimately be sent under the frank. As a result, congressional members marked just about everything as “official business.” The second flaw in the system was that there was no authoritative body put in charge of the franking privilege to establish regulations in using the frank.

The first flaw led to a slew of lawsuits that were filed prior to the congressional elections that took place in 1972, regarding mail being sent under frank that was not, in fact, “official business.” Clearer principles were established regarding what could and could not be considered an official mailing, and specific types of mail were prohibited from being sent under frank. These principles effectively took care of both of the major flaws in the system, and reduced confusion and abuse of the policy going forward.

Since 1973, the Commission has worked to refine the franking privilege process. Examples of franking privilege changes that have been enforced over the years include:

  • Mailing Limits – In 1977, the House rules were amended to limit the number of postal mailings each year.
  • No Pre-Election Mailings – In that same year, members were also barred from engaging in mass mailings during the 60-day period preceding an election. Further, members were directed to submit their proposed mailings to the Commission for approval before sending them out.
  • Reduction in Mailings – In 1989, the number of mailings per member were reduced from six to three for each calendar year.
  • Piece by Piece Accountability – In 1991, the “Official Mail Allowance” (OMA) amendment marked the most important change to the franking policy in recent history. Under this amendment, each member would be given an account, and all mail that was stamped with a frank would be connected to that member’s account. This amendment increased the responsibility of the member to do the right thing, and to not abuse policy. The OMA also removed the restriction on the number of mass mailings that could be sent, which makes sense when considering the fact that everyone was now accountable for each piece of mail they sent out.
  • Restriction to Mailing Within Districts – In 1992, the franking statutes were revised to prohibit members to mass mail outside of their districts. This practice was now considered to be unconstitutional.
  • Full Disclosure – In 1997, the pre-election prohibition on mass mailing increased from a 60-day period to a 90-day period. Additionally, mass mailings were now ordered to display disclaimer statements showing that the mail was paid for with taxpayers’ money. Members were also directed to disclose, on a quarterly basis, the number of mass mailings they sent during that quarter, along with the costs they paid for those mailings.

Today, Congress uses the franking privilege in order to simplify the transmission of official communications from elected officials to those citizens they represent. Examples of franking privilege-related communications may include:

  • Responses to constituents’ requests for information
  • Newsletters pertaining to legislation and member votes
  • Press releases detailing official activities that would concern members
  • Copies of governmental reports
  • Notices about upcoming town meetings

Franking Privilege Example in Campaign-Related Literature

An example of the franking privilege being brought before the courts can be seen in the case Rising v. Brown. Here, John Tunney and George Brown, Jr. were both congressmen from districts located in California. Both men were candidates for the Senate in the primary election that was to take place on June 2, 1970. Tunney and his campaign aides filed for a restraining order in the United States District Court for the Central District of California against Brown and another of his campaign aides, intended to stop Brown and his aides from using Brown’s franking privilege to mail postcards to voters, which Tunney believed to be campaign material.

300,000 of the postcards in question were printed. They read, in part:

Dear Concerned Citizen:

I am asking you, a resident of California to participate in this survey. As a member of the Science and Astronautics Committee of the United States Congress, I am interested in your opinions of these questions. This spring, our committee will be holding hearings in California on environmental pollution. I would very much appreciate the opportunity to present your views to the committee. The data collected will be made available to all California congressmen, other elected officials and the press.

Sincerely yours,
George Brown,
Member of Congress”

The reverse side of the postcard contained a short survey consisting of nine “yes” or “no” questions. Upon answering these questions, the recipient was invited to return the postcard back to Brown’s office. Brown had used a frank to send the postcards.

Brown’s defense was that the postcard was being used as a way to keep the recipients informed of the results of the survey. He claimed that the survey was mailed out in the course of his regular activities as a member of the House Science and Astronautics Committee.

Tunney’s question to the Court, however, was whether or not Brown should have been required to place a stamp on each postcard before sending them off to California voters via the Post Office, rather than invoking his franking privilege. He also questioned whether tax dollars should be reimbursed to the Post Office for Tunney’s allegedly illegal use of the franking privilege. Tunney’s concern was that the primary campaign of a major political party was going to potentially be influenced by Brown’s alleged misuse of public funds.

The Court was especially concerned with two things:

  1. That the 300,000 postcards were paid for by Brown, prepared by the public relations firm that was managing his campaign for the Senate, and stuffed into envelopes by volunteer campaign workers; and
  2. That Brown waited until two weeks before election day to mail his literature, and that the literature was mailed to citizens throughout the state of California, rather than those specific to his congressional district.

The Court held that Tunney and his aides presented evidence of the fact that Brown was not distributing “official business,” which would have been a proper use of the franking privilege. Instead, Brown’s literature was more in line with what one would expect to be campaign materials. The Court ultimately found that Tunney had suffered “irreparable damage” in his campaign efforts, and banned Brown and his aides from using his franking privilege to mail any additional pieces of the literature.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Campaign – An organized course of action intended to achieve an ultimate goal.
  • Constituent – A voting member of a community who has the power to appoint or elect an official.
  • Legislation – Laws, collectively.

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