WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher decided to use a cost-effective method to introduce himself to voters in California's new 45th Congressional District, where he plans to seek election this fall.
At taxpayers' expense, the Long Beach Republican mailed 150,000 newsletters to residents of the new district, which stretches from Seal Beach to Newport Beach. His name was probably unfamiliar to most who received the letter: Every household he targeted lies outside his current district, which runs from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Huntington Beach.
What Rohrabacher--and at least six other California congressmen--did is legal. Members of Congress are permitted to use the frank--their free mailing privilege--to send newsletters not only to constituents, but also to voters in newly redrawn congressional districts that they do not represent.
Even so, critics argue that the practice gives congressional incumbents an egregiously unfair advantage against lesser-known challengers who do not hold office. That is especially true in the new districts, where the incumbents otherwise might have to meet opponents on equal footing. Rohrabacher's publicly funded mailing would have cost a challenger about $18,000.
Amid a growing backlash against a wide range of congressional perks, some lawmakers say that the time has arrived to end this arcane, expensive privilege.
"It's wrong," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who has introduced a bill to ban such mailings. "I can think of no justification whatsoever for using taxpayers' dollars to send unsolicited mass-mail information to people who are not now in a member's district."
"We think it's a perfect illustration of how the frank is being used for campaign purposes," said Michael McCauley, research director of Congress Watch, the legislative arm of Public Citizen, the consumers' lobby founded by Ralph Nader.
In a recent survey taken by Roll Call, a semiweekly newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, six California congressmen--out of 22 members who responded--said they had engaged in the practice. Another subsequently acknowledged to The Times that he also had sent such mass mailings.
In addition to Rohrabacher, those who told Roll Call that they had sent the mailings are Republican Reps. Wally Herger of Yuba City, Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley and Jerry Lewis of Redlands. Lewis is the third-ranking House GOP leader.
Spokesmen for all four San Diego County GOP congressmen said Friday that none had used out-of-district mailings. But two offices hedged about whether they would do so in the future.
Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) condemned the mailings as "an abuse" of the franking privilege and asked his colleagues to forswear the practice.
Rep. Ron Packard (R.-Oceanside) "tries to keep franked mail to a minimum, generally two mailings a year," his press secretary, Carole A. Suarez, said.
Both Lowery and Packard support the Thomas bill to ban the practice.
Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego) issued a statement saying, "I have not sent unsolicited franked mass mail outside my congressional district, nor have I made a final decision on whether to mail into other parts of San Diego County." He and Lowery appear headed for a primary contest in the new 51st District. Cunningham is still reviewing the Thomas bill.
John Palafoutas, administrative aide to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), said the question barely applied to the congressman's new 52nd District, which is "99% the same" as his present 45th District, "but we haven't ruled out the option," Palafoutas said. Hunter was still considering the Thomas bill, Palafoutas said.
Democrats who said they franked outside their districts are Reps. George E. Brown Jr. of Colton and Vic Fazio of West Sacramento. Fazio chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees congressional mailing expenditures.
Subsequently, an aide to Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) said that his office had mailed a newsletter to voters outside Lagomarsino's district.
One congressional staffer said he believes that the practice is far more pervasive than the Roll Call survey indicates. "From what I understand, it's widespread," said the aide, who asked not to be named.
No agency monitors where franked letters are sent, so information about it has to come from congressional offices.
Most defenders of the practice simply pointed out that it is legal. But Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorma City), who has not yet done mailings to non-constituents in a new east San Fernando Valley district where he plans to run, said he could make another argument for it.
"There are services a congressional office could provide and would have a high incentive to provide in a new area," said Berman, who refused to foreclose the option for himself. "On the other hand," he added, "it could be viewed, particularly by opponents, as an unfair incumbent advantage."