Free Mail for Congress: $45 Million

Photograph by Evan Vucci/AP Photo

A letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service delivering mail to a residence in Washington after a powerful storm.

Lawmakers intent on dictating how the U.S. Postal Service cuts billions from its spending are among those helping themselves to a favorite congressional perk: free mail.

U.S. House members sent more than $45 million worth of such mail in 2010 and 2011 even while switching much of their communication to e-mail in recent years. Three of the 10 largest users last year were Republican members of the Tea Party caucus, which advocates for less government spending, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from House reports.

The Postal Service, which has more employees than any U.S.- based publicly traded company other than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., lost $3.2 billion in the quarter ended March 31 and has said it expects to temporarily run out of cash in October. It has asked Congress to let it make changes, including slowing required payments for future retirees’ health benefits.

“There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy, but then again, when you’re the head of the plantation, you can pretty much do what you want,” said Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, whose members include Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Publishers Clearing House LLC. “Obviously they should be leading by example. Instead, they do quite the opposite.”

The privilege known as franking, dating to the Continental Congress in 1775, allows lawmakers to send mail to constituents at no cost using their signatures. Franking doesn’t deprive the Postal Service, which reported $65.7 billion in revenue in its 2011 fiscal year, of income. It does cost U.S. taxpayers who reimburse the Postal Service at rates similar to those paid by other bulk mailers.

Of the top 50 frankers by spending, 38 — or 76 percent — are Republicans, who are 56 percent of House members. Franking typically is used more in election years; for example, House members spent $34.1 million in 2010 and $11.3 million in 2011, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

The top franker, Representative Joe Heck, is a first-term Nevada Republican elected with the support of Tea Party voters. Heck sent mass mailings worth $430,680 from the beginning of 2011 through March 31, 14.2 percent more than the next largest franker, according to House records. He sent letters about Medicare, the national debt and balancing the budget.

See the full BGov report at Bloomberg.com.

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