Home>Campaigns>Incumbency has its advantages as Members of Congress use tax dollars to tout accomplishments

Members of the New Jersey congressional delegation in the 116th Congress in Washington in 2019, left to right: Donald Norcross, Jeff Van Drew, Frank Pallone, Mikie Sherrill, Tom Malinowski, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Albio Sires, Bill Pascrell, Andy Kim and Donald Payne. Missing: Josh Gottheimer. Van Drew was a Democrat at the time.

Incumbency has its advantages as Members of Congress use tax dollars to tout accomplishments

Congressmen can use official funds for digital and radio ads, mass correspondence, and it’s all legal

By David Wildstein, August 30 2022 12:15 am

House incumbents are scurrying to spend money from their official office accounts on constituent communications before the September 9 blackout period that freezes taxpayer-funded expenditures until after Election Day.

Franked mail is no longer just newsletters or mass constituent correspondence.  These days the U.S. House of Representatives has broadened the advantages of incumbency.  Members are permitted to use their congressional office accounts to pay for highly targeted digital ads, radio commercials, billboards, mailings, robo calls, and unsolicited emails to reach their constituents on the official business side.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) has filed 103 requests this year, the most in the New Jersey delegation, to use his congressional office account to pay for, according to the House Communications Standards Commission, formerly known as the Franking Commission.  Of those requests, 49 have come since the June primary election.

Last week, Malinowski sent out an “affordability mailer” that touts “the progress Congress has made towards fighting inflation and lowering the cost of living for New Jerseyans.”

He’s also run digital videos on flood prevention, a Roe v. Wade survey to capture email addresses, along with mailers and digital ads targeted to specific municipalities targeting his efforts to secure local grant dollars – all in accordance with House rules agreed upon by both sides.

Nationally, Republicans have been significantly more aggressive than Democrats on franking requests this year.  According to Punchbowl, about 61% of all requests have come from GOP incumbents through the end of last month and that House Democrats are “privately fretting” that Republicans have done a better job.

All communications expenditures must be approved by the commission and requires signoff from both parties.  The number of requests doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount spent.  The House changed their rules this year to relax the closing date for such expenditures from 90 days before the election to 60.

Two other House Democrats in potentially competitive re-election campaigns, Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), are also using their official account to communicate with constituents.  Kim has made 39 requests – 22 of them since the primary — and 30 have come from Sherrill, most of them from earlier this year and 256

Kim has run digital ads on the cost of insulin and health care, the national debt, community policing and veterans services.  He’s run multiple surveys on issues like climate, contraception, and daylight saving time.

Over the weekend, Kim launched a $10,000 radio buy on NJ 101.5 encouraging constituents to contact his office if they need help dealing with Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Affairs or other federal agencies.  Casework ads are not unusual, although this buy helps give Kim exposure in the new parts of New Jersey’s 3rd district – Mercer and Monmouth counties – where 101.5 has a larger audience.

Kim’s Republican opponent, Bob Healey, criticized the two-term congressman for politicking at taxpayer expense.

“Congressman Kim’s decision to spend taxpayer dollars on what amounts to a campaign ad just 70 days before Election Day is basically a giant middle-finger to struggling taxpayers,” Healey said in a statement on Monday.

But Kim’s spokesman, Forrest Rilling, pushed back on Healey’s critique.

“There’s nothing political about casework,” Rilling said.  “There have been many questions and requests for help from veterans and seniors in recent weeks, in part due to the passage of the PACT Act, which was the largest expansion of veterans healthcare in decades, and the Inflation Reduction Act that lowers Medicare costs for many.”

Sherrill also received approval this month to run radio ads telling constituents to contact her with casework issues.

It won’t be clear how much each House member spent using official funds until the third quarter report of the Clerk of the House is published in October.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) was second in the delegation with franking requests with 43.  Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) made 19 requests, and Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-Paterson) made 15.  Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-Long Branch) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) made three each.

The two Republicans from New Jersey, Christopher Smith (R-Manchester) and Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), made just 7 and 2 franking requests, respectively, for old-school newsletters.  Retiring Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York) also made two, the same as Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark).

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