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The coming week could be a busy one, at least at the post office on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have a deadline if they want to send out official mass mailings before election day. The mail has to go out before next Thursday, then a 90-day blackout period begins. Members of Congress are not supposed to use the Capitol Hill post office for anything campaign related. But as NPR's Peter Overby explains, there is a fine art to congressional communications.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Mass mail from Congress is as old as the Republic. So are suspicions about its real use.
CONGRESSMAN ROB WOODALL: It's either a congressional perk that looks a lot like someone campaigning with tax dollars, or it's part of your constituent service responsibility.
OVERBY: Georgia Congressman Rob Woodall paused between votes this week to talk about mail and how to allay constituent suspicions. For starters, official congressional mail lands in your mailbox without a stamp. Instead, there's just the lawmaker's signature where the stamp would be. It's called a frank. But that doesn't mean no postage was paid.
WOODALL: Congress used to have free mail. Congress now has weird mail, but it's not free.
OVERBY: Woodall, a Republican, says the frank hides the cost, which is buried in congressional accounting. So he has a bill to get rid of the frank and pay regular postage, just like a business would do.
WOODALL: I'll buy a bulk permit. I'll get that done.
OVERBY: And meanwhile...
WOODALL: For us, we'll do a big frank mailing before the blackout period.
OVERBY: Woodall and a lot of his colleagues. There's a story that in the early 1800s, a senator put his frank - his signature - on his horse's bridle and sent the animal to Pittsburgh. Nowadays, the Congressional Research Service says the volume of frank mass mail spikes every two years - in the holiday season of the first year and just before the blackout before the election.
CONGRESSMAN PETER KING: It's not so much that I'm timing it. It's to get it done when I can get it done. That's all.
OVERBY: This is Republican Peter King of Long Island. He's talking about his latest newsletter.
KING: Just pulled one out the other day.
OVERBY: What is it?
KING: It's just a - basically a four-page newsletter describing all my great activities.
OVERBY: Congress has rules, of course, intended to tamp down the political subtext of newsletters. But there's still a good amount of leeway. Brad Fitch is president of the non-profit Congressional Management Foundation, which advises members on how to run their offices.
BRAD FITCH: Members of Congress can send out a newsletter that puts out exactly how they voted on key pieces of legislation and explains it in very nonpolitical terms, or they can send out a newsletter that basically says they walk on water.
OVERBY: And at the National Taxpayers Union, Pete Sepp says they like proposals to require that mass mailings be printed on official letterhead.
PETE SEPP: So that these glossy newsletters could not easily be fabricated and sent out to constituents.
OVERBY: But the logjam at the congressional mailroom doesn't include all members of Congress. Democrat Danny Davis from a working class district in Chicago said he used to do newsletters, but now he says he can't afford to. The money saved on mail goes into constituent aid, dealing with housing, utility shut-offs and other critical problems.
CONGRESSMAN DANNY DAVIS: We're inundated with service requests all day long, every day.
OVERBY: Davis says he reaches constituents via anything from printed posters to local radio shows. He says he believes in an enlightened citizenry, but his constituents have more pressing needs than a congressional newsletter before the election. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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