#ShowUsYourMailers: Mailer From Duncan Hunter Prepared At Taxpayer Expense
Election season is upon us, which means soon your mailbox will be stuffed with glossy campaign mailers.
And that means it is time to bring back the KPBS series, #ShowUsYourMailers. We ask our fine KPBS followers — people like you — to send in campaign mailers, and we will fact-check their claims and look into the groups sending them out.
The first in our series comes from Congressman Duncan Hunter. It technically is not a campaign mailer, though it looks a lot like one.
On the top, it says, "Congressman Duncan Hunter is working to stop higher gas taxes and wasteful bullet train spending" and has pictures of Hunter meeting with constituents.
But then it says, "This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense."
It is perfectly legal to send out these mailers, said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School. They are something called "franked mail", a practice that dates back to the 1700s to allow members of Congress to communicate with their constituents.
Congressional and Senate offices can send franked mail without paying postage, a practice that led to the myth that if you write "Frankie" on a letter in place of a stamp, the post office will mail it for free. It will not.
But these days, franked mail can straddle a fine line between being communication and campaign ads, Levinson said.
"It's OK if you send something that is within the public interest or public concern, but it's not OK if you use public funds to send a mailer that is either about a political campaign or a campaign mailer or some type of mailer that says please elect me because I'm a great representative," she said.
Hunter's mailer "really pushes that line," she added.
Hunter spent $2,472 on these mailers in 2017, according to federal spending statements. His spokesman did not respond to questions about the mailer, but sent a statement.
"The mailer we sent out was franked, meaning it was reviewed and approved by the House Committee on Administration meeting all the standards and regulations of the House," it said. "Like every other Member of Congress, Congressman Hunter utilizes franked mail pieces to communicate with his constituents and receive their feedback on issues that are topical and of concern. It would be illegal, nor would have been approved by the House Franking Commission, if it were a solicitation of votes for Congressman Hunter."
Lots of elected officials use the franking privilege, which becomes an advantage for incumbents, Levinson said.
"They send out pieces of mail that really look almost identical to campaign mailers and they say, 'well, but I talked about a few issues that are of public concern,' and therefore it's permissible," she said.
Congressman Scott Peters also sends out franked mail three or four times a year, according to his Chief of Staff MaryAnne Pintar. A recent mailer from his office says he is working to save and fix the affordable care act.
The mailers cannot be sent within 90 days of an election, so Hunter's mailer came in just under the wire a few days before the March 7 deadline.
As for the claims on the mailer itself, it says Hunter is "working to stop the gas tax increase." The California legislature passed a gas tax last year, but as a congressman, Hunter has no control over that.
In the body of the mailer, he specifies that he is opposing "a proposal in Washington that would increase the federal tax on gasoline by 25 cents a gallon."
There is no proposal for a federal tax on gasoline. The mailer cites a CNBC story that says "Republicans and the White House are reportedly discussing a gas tax hike to fund an infrastructure plan."