Michigan reps’ outreach costs taxpayers $643K

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan lawmakers spent more than $643,000 in taxpayer money last year reaching out to constituents, with nearly two-thirds of that spent in three Republican-held House districts.

A franked mailer from Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, about his support for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

GOP U.S. Reps. Tim Walberg of Tipton, Paul Mitchell of Dryden and Jack Bergman of Watersmeet each spent more than $100,000 in 2017 on what’s known as “franked” mail and taxpayer-funded mass communications, according to a Detroit News review of the delegation’s spending. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, spent nearly $85,000.

Michigan lawmakers talked to constituents through letters but also colorful fliers, email newsletters, radio and television advertisements, as well Facebook and other digital ads.

Mitchell printed a splashy “DC Visitors Guide” pamphlet with a map of downtown Washington and suggested tourist sites. A Walberg ad on Facebook promised the Republican tax reform plan as putting “more money in your pocket.”

An e-newsletter from Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, alerted Bay County property owners how to access disaster aid after flooding last summer.

The congressional frank dates to 1775 and permits members of Congress to send mail to constituents under their signature without postage. The cost of franked items is deducted from their office budgets, and there’s no limit on the amount they may spend.

Members may also send unsolicited non-mail messages, which must be reported if distributed to 500 or more people.

Lawmakers use automated or robo calls to announce town-hall meetings, email with legislative updates and run television or radio ads about job fairs or other services for constituents.

Among members of Congress who sent at least one mass mailing or communication, the average cost per member from 2009-11 was $107,431, according to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Critics of franked mail say it’s wasteful and gives an unfair edge to incumbents at taxpayers’ expense during an election year. But House members can’t send the mailings during a 90-day period before an election.

Michigan’s franking leader

Walberg spent nearly $162,500 last year — more than any other member of the delegation. His district is among those targeted by Democrats in the fall midterm elections, although he defeated his Democratic opponent in 2016 by 15 percentage points.

Walberg places a “top priority” on communicating with constituents in his district’s seven counties on issues that matter to them and in a way that is convenient for them, spokesman Dan Kotman said.

A review of Walberg’s mass mailings and communications on file with the U.S. House showed he used a variety of methods — from robo calls to radio, TV and digital ads — to notify constituents of the 40 coffee hours, town halls and “tele”-town halls he held last year.

His file includes a telephone town hall script, TV ads for job and veterans fairs, a colorful postcard mailer on senior fraud, letters announcing bills he introduced and Facebook ads on health care reform: “Obamacare is on the brink of collapse, and I’m working to fix the mess it created. Visit my website to learn more ...”

Last year was Mitchell’s first in Congress. Some of the about $155,000 he spent went to print palm cards with contact info for his offices and constituent services, as well as the D.C. Visitors Guide.

“As a new member of Congress, Congressman Mitchell believes it is important to communicate with constituents across Michigan’s 10th District,” spokesman Alex Davidson said.

Mitchell’s file includes e-surveys asking for constituents’ opinions on legislative priorities and whether President Donald Trump’s policies are “improving your life and strengthening our nation.” Glossy postcard mailers notified seniors of the Medicare open enrollment period and offered services for veterans.

Overcoming barriers

Two other Michigan members who spent the most represent the state’s largest geographic districts.

Bergman spent nearly $104,400 to talk to residents of the 1st District, which is the second largest district east of the Mississippi River, encompassing the Upper Peninsula and 16 counties of the lower peninsula.

Snail mail is the only way to reach some residents in the most isolated, rural areas and “let them know you are there to help them,” Bergman spokesman James Hogge said.

“Overcoming the communication barrier in a district this size is a constant battle,” he said.

“Quite frequently, we receive calls from constituents saying they heard the radio ad or received a mailing and need help getting a (Veterans Administration) benefit or a Social Security check, and we can begin our casework based on that interaction.”

A Facebook ad from Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, touts his support for “enforcing our immigration laws and securing our border.”

In mid-Michigan, Moolenaar uses radio ads to reach constituents in parts of his 15-county district that lack reliable rural broadband access, spokesman David Russell said. The messages offered help with federal agencies like the VA and the Internal Revenue Service.

Half of the House delegation and both senators spent no money last year on franked mail. Two members — Reps. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, and Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak — reported spending nothing on mass mail or communications in 2017, choosing to invest their office budgets elsewhere.

“It’s a better use of resources to hire high-quality staff,” Amash spokeswoman Corie Whalen said.

Others are finding lower-cost ways to communicate, such as social media or e-newsletters. Some prefer to talk to constituents through their campaigns, which doesn’t require review and approval by the bipartisan franking commission.

Levin, who has served in Congress for 36 years, has built up an email list of 18,000 for his weekly Congressional Connector newsletter, his office said.

Franking costs




Tim Walberg



Paul Mitchell



Jack Bergman



John Moolenaar



Mike Bishop



Brenda Lawrence



Debbie Dingell



Fred Upton



Dan Kildee



John Conyers



Dave Trott



Bill Huizenga



Justin Amash



Sander Levin



Source: U.S. House Statements of Disbursements