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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Frankly, Guinta has a lot to say

Telegraph Editorial

How much is constituent service worth to you in the form of taxpayer-funded mailings when you elect a congressman to represent you in Washington?

If that’s at the top of your list, then you will be happy to know that U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta spent more on these so-called “franked” mailings last year than any other House member in the country: $164,649.

To put that figure into some perspective, it breaks down to $13,721 a month. Or $3,166 a week. Or even $451 a day.

And while that’s a pretty puny number in these days of $3.8 trillion federal budgets, who would have thought it would be a tea-party backed freshman from Manchester who would rank No. 1 among the 435 members of the House of Representatives in sending out taxpayer-paid mailings.

The fact that this is the same individual who accused then-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of “campaigning with our tax dollars” in the spring of 2010 makes the 1st District Republican’s top ranking all the more noteworthy.

Franking refers to the ability of House and Senate members to send official correspondence to their constituents using taxpayer money. The concept dates back to the English House of Commons and was adopted by the American Continental Congress in 1775 as a way for members to keep their constituents informed.

While the rules have changed considerably in the ensuing 237 years, the most recent extended the prohibition against mass mailings from 60 to 90 days before an election and required the printing of a disclaimer that states: “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.”

While that disclosure has added some transparency to the process, it has not ended criticism that the use of franked mail gives incumbents a considerable advantage over their challengers. Moreover, there is a pretty fine line between “official correspondence” and electioneering.

That’s what happened two years ago, when Guinta took the Democratic incumbent to task over the distribution of a “Congressional Update” that he claimed crossed the line between keeping constituents informed and campaigning for re-election. Shea-Porter also came under fire that year for spending $1,059 in franked mail to send congratulatory letters to graduating high school seniors.

“There is a thin line between maintaining a rapport with one’s constituents and electioneering. These pamphlets violate the idea of a “Congressional Update,” and show an abuse of a representative’s franking privileges,” Guinta wrote in June 2010.

Naturally, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph, state Democratic officials and the Shea-Porter campaign were quick to accuse Guinta of hypocrisy, citing his top ranking in a data analysis conducted by The Bakersfield Californian. Rep. Charles Bass, the state’s other congressman, ranked 202nd with $22,344 in franked mail last year.

While a Guinta spokesman acknowledged the ranking, he contended the mailings were used for legitimate constituent purposes and that the congressman had reduced his office’s budget by 11 percent last year.

Still, the $164,649 spent by Guinta on franked mail seems excessive – as does the $89,212 spent by Shea-Porter in 2010, for that matter – and we suspect we weren’t the only ones surprised by the congressman’s No. 1 ranking.

And 2011 wasn’t even an election year.