By Brielle Powers
How to regulate franking in an era when more messages arrive in your digital inbox than your physical mailbox was the focus of last week’s convening of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Chaired by U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a former Washington state legislator, and vice-chaired by U.S. Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.), a former Georgia State assemblyman, the committee, established in January 2019 aims to learn from state legislatures about how to remedy the inefficiencies of Congress.
At the hearing, Kilmer discussed how franking—the ability to send mail by one's signature rather than by postage—has historically been a fundamental method of communication between representatives and their constituents. However, he noted that its use has declined with the advent of social media and other modern communication technologies.
U.S. Representatives Susan Davis (D-Calif.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) from the Congressional Franking Commission testified on ways to bring congressional mailing standards into the 21st century. Davis suggested creating greater transparency with the franking advisory process, making opinions available online and establishing a simpler set of rules for franking regulations.
Davis discussed the commission’s progress in modernizing franking. The Committee on House Administration now operates on 100% online submissions for franking requests and has digitized the approval process, making the procedure faster and easier. However, current franking regulations still require archaic practices such as counting the number of times the word “I” is used and measuring pictures by hand.
Kilmer noted there are pros and cons of both franking and social media. For example, while social media allows representatives to reach large audiences, franking has the geographic advantage of being able to target a selection of constituents.
Joshua Tucker, a professor of social media and politics at New York University, said there are dangers if representatives solely communicate through social media. With a national audience, elected officials may be less apt to talk about issues that affect only constituents in their district.
Committee member and U.S. Representative Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) brought up the issue of broadband access. Since her constituents live in more rural areas, many do not have access to social media or are not as active on these sites. Therefore, her office relies on traditional franked mail to communicate with these constituents.
The committee also discussed vagueness around social media regulations for representatives and whether social media should fall under franking regulations.
Davis recommended that the committee reevaluate the appropriateness of allowing members the option to transfer social media followers from campaign accounts to official accounts.
Multiple witnesses noted the challenges representatives face while managing multiple social media accounts, and said combining their various accounts would allow representatives to reach a much larger audience. However, this provides challenges. For example, candidates for office may reach out to audiences outside of their district for campaign funding and thus follow people outside of their district on their campaign accounts. But, once in office, representatives may want to target certain messages to only their voting constituents.
Similar debates are occurring at the state level. Like their federal counterparts, many state legislators have both campaign and official social media accounts (and sometimes even a third, personal, account).
While combining these accounts could be more effective, doing so raises concerns over whether state legislators should focus on a national audience or if they should be directing their messaging to only their constituents.
As more social media platforms emerge, lawmakers will have to consider the implications of more technically advanced methods of communication to ensure elected officials can communicate effectively with the people they represent.
Brielle Powers is an intern in NCSL’s Public Affairs Program in Washington, D.C.