U.S. Sen. David Vitter could be setting himself up for a repeat of ethics complaints over a perceived use of his Senate franking privileges in his campaign for governor.
The congressional franking privilege, which originated in 1775, allows members of Congress to send official notices, brochures and updates to constituents back home under their signature without having to pay postage. Congress, through legislative appropriations, reimburses the U.S. Postal Service for franked mail it handles.
Vitter is not a candidate for re-election in the 2016 election but instead is running to succeed Bobby Jindal as governor against three other candidates. He is making full use of his franking privileges to announce town hall meetings across the state to address local issues. One such mail-out has caught the attention of LouisianaVoice.
Reform efforts over the past two decades have reduced overall franking expenditures from $113.4 million in fiscal year 1988 to $16.9 million in FY 2014 and even then, many of the mail-outs are simply tossed unread by recipients back home. Much of that reduction can be attributed to a shift to electronic communications rather than any real reform of the practice.
Franking has come under wide criticism by opponents of the privilege who say it:
- Is financially wasteful;
- Has become outdated with the introduction of other forms of communication, i.e. e-mail;
- Is abused for private and political gain;
- Gives unfair advantages to incumbents in congressional elections.
The last two could be cited as giving Vitter an unfair edge in this fall’s governor’s race. While he is not running for re-election, he is a candidate for governor and his Senate franking privileges could be looked upon as an unfair advantage over fellow Republicans—Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne—and Democrat State Rep. John Bel Edwards who are also running for governor.
Franking rules strictly prohibit incumbents from actually soliciting votes when the mail-outs are done on the taxpayer dime but they do not preclude addressing hot button issues like immigration, social security, veterans’ benefits, etc.
In 2009, Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington filed an official ethics complaint against Vitter for his verbal attacks on U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, an eventual opponent in Vitter’s 2010 re-election campaign. Those attacks were made in local meetings pursuant to mass mail-outs by Vitter via the franking privilege.
Whittington said Vitter, by explicitly invoking the name of Melancon in his so-called town hall meetings, publicized in advance by franking mail-outs, crossed the line from official business (the supposed purpose of franking) to campaigning.
Though the words “vote for…” never appeared in any of Vitter’s mailings, reports from his town hall meetings across the state made it clear that he mentioned Melancon often. Vitter in turn charged that the Democrats were trying to “shut down the debate and suggest that it’s somehow out of bounds. Well, it’s not out of bounds because this is still America,” he said.
In Vitter’s most recent franking mail-out, he issued an invitation to one of his town hall meetings on Monday, June 1 in the chambers of the East Baton Rouge Council “to discuss possible solutions to relieve traffic congestion. We’ll also discuss efforts like working to pass a long-term highway reauthorization bill that would help to update our roads and bridges,” the announcement said. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)
While strictly interpreted, such a discussion could easily be passed off as a federal concern with federal roads and highways crisscrossing East Baton Rouge Parish. That, along with the unquestioned problem of traffic congestion experienced by local motorists, could easily be construed by Vitter as a Senate-related issue.
We have no way of knowing at this point, but it would seem a safe bet that similar town hall meetings have been or will be announced by Vitter via franking in other parts of the state to discuss other pressing problems.
But coming as it does in the middle of what promises to be a heated election season in Louisiana, it would appear to give Vitter a decided—and unfair—advantage over his three opponents who do not have the luxury of free campaign mail-outs.
Nor would it be the first time Vitter has skated on the edge of campaign rules.
In January of 2014, Vitter was up against a state law that prohibited him from using his seven-figure campaign funds amassed as a federal office-holder for a state campaign.
No problem for a manipulators like Vitter and Charlie Spies, a Republican lawyer who was instrumental in launching Mitt Romney’s largest super PAC. In early 2013, Spies created the Fund for Louisiana’s Future and registered the super PAC both federally and in Louisiana in order “to support Sen. Vitter whether he ran for re-election to the Senate or for governor.”
Thus did Vitter become perhaps the first politician in the U.S. to be the largest single funder of his own super PAC.
A former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission said Vitter’s funding of his own super PAC, unprecedented to that point, raised the issue of the separation of super PACs and a candidate’s campaign “to a new level.”
Another observer, Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said the existing Louisiana prohibition of the use of federal campaign funds in a state campaign was the only plausible reason for a candidate ceding control of his own campaign funds by transferring cash from his federal campaign to his gubernatorial campaign.
Stand by, folks. This election campaign promises to be a tad out of the ordinary, even by Louisiana’s unique standards.