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A frank look at franking in West Virginia

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With one stamp costing 46 cents and a book of 18 Four Flags (Forever) from the United States Postal Service coming in at $8.28, taking advantage of the franking system sounds like an appealing idea for those who frequently facilitate mail via the U.S. postal service.

However, that privilege is reserved for those who sit in the seats of congressional halls.

The Franking privileges, which is the ability to send mail by one's signature rather than by postage, are nothing new and were written into law by the first Congress in 1789, according to information from the U.S. Senate. 

Although the Senate voted to abolish the congressional franking privilege Jan. 31, 1873, Congress restored full franking privileges in 1891.

Franking  habits today

Today, the franking budget involves two types of mail: mass mailings and mass communications. 

According to a Congressional Research Service analysis, mass mailings are "franked mailings of 500 or more substantially similar pieces of unsolicited mail sent by individual Members during the same session of Congress." 

Mass communications include "all unsolicited mailing or communications of substantially identical content distributed to 500 or more persons, regardless of the media."

Currently the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards is charged with ensuring the franking privilege is properly exercised. According to the commission's official regulations, non-frankable items include personal or biographical material, political and partisan references and solicitations, promotions or endorsements. Frankable items include legislative duties, official activities and constituent service.

Election versus non-election

But according to Matthew Eric Glassman's June 11, 2013, analysis on the Congress "Franking Privilege: Mass Mailings and Mass Communications in the House 1997-2012," and documented in the Congressional Research Service, mass mail costs do rise in the quarters prior to the pre-election prohibited period. 

Glassman also states that the "structure of the fiscal calendar is also important in creating large disparities between election-year and non-election-year mail costs."

According to Glassman, between 1997-2008, when mass mailings are compared by fiscal year, both the December spike and the pre-election increase are in the same year, so "the data shows inflated election-year numbers and suppressed non-election-year numbers."

Glassman states in his analysis that when annual data is compared by calendar year, the December spike and the pre-election increase balance out, and the totals are relatively similar. 

Because fiscal years run from October 1 to September 30, "both the spike in mass mailings in the fourth quarter of the first session and the pre-election rise in mass mailings occur in the same fiscal year, despite taking place in different calendar years and different sessions of Congress," Glassman states in his report. 

During 2009 and 2010, Glassman reports a similar result when examining mass communications. 

"A fiscal year comparison results in a large difference, while a calendar year comparison results in virtually no difference," Glassman's report states. "In 2011 and 2012, however, there is a substantial difference. This is due to a large increase in the amount of mass communications sent in the third and fourth quarters of 2011."

Provided above are amounts obtained from the Statement of Disbursements of the House documenting the monetary amount of money spent on mass mail and mass communications by congressional members of the Mountain State. Also provided is a look at what a few other congressional members outside of the Mountain State have spent in 2013.