Matt Glassman, who teaches in the Claremont McKenna College Washington Semester Program, testified before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on “Congress and the Frank:Bringing Congressional Mailing Standards into the 21st Century,” October 31, 2019.
Although virtually all Members continue to use these traditional modes of constituent communication—postal mail, telephone calls, press releases, and face-to-face meetings— congressional use of new electronic communications technology has dramatically increased. Email is now the dominant form of constituent communication with the Hill, with tens of millions of constituent emails to Congress each year. Member official websites, blogs, YouTube channels, and Facebook pages—all nonexistent in 1994—also receive significant traffic. In less than 25 years, the entire nature of Member-constituent communication has been transformed, perhaps more than in any other period in American history. The postal franking privilege should now be viewed as a part of overall constituent communications, and one that is increasingly a
smaller portion of Member communication strategies.
The rise of such electronic communication has altered the traditional patterns of communication between Members and constituents. Electronic technology has reduced the marginal cost of constituent communications; unlike postal letters, Members can reach large numbers of constituents for a fixed cost, and constituents can reach Members at virtually zero cost. Likewise, the relay of information from Capitol Hill to the rest of the country (and vice versa) has been reduced, timewise, to almost zero. As soon as something happens in Congress, it is known everywhere in real time. Finally, Members can reach large numbers of citizens who are not their own constituents.
These changes call into question the relevance of traditional franked postal mail, which has become a smaller portion of most members constituent communication in recent years. While Members sent 77.9 million pieces of mass mail in FY2018, they sent over 1.2 billion pieces of mass communications. The cost/piece of mass postal mail (35 cents in 2018) is over 70 times higher than the cost/piece of mass communications (less than half a cent in 2018). On the other hand, technological change has also mitigated some of the concerns about the frank and incumbency advantage, as electoral challengers can equally take advantage of many of the free third-party electronic communications tools that have become popular among members.