Politics & Government

Mailings just one way lawmakers communicate directly back home

WASHINGTON -- A new taxpayer-funded mailing from Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, has a simple and alarming message for the San Joaquin Valley.

"The spending of your tax dollars is out of control," the publicly funded mailer states.

Radanovich's latest mailing positions him politically -- "I'm working to help stop runaway spending," it proclaims -- but it is not explicitly a campaign document. Instead, the mailing sent to about 90,000 households comes courtesy of the congressional frank, which is official mail sent at government expense.

Since first being authorized in 1775, the congressional frank has proven immensely popular among incumbents. In fiscal 2007, House members spent more than $17 million on mass mailings.

During election years, more mailings go out and spending goes up. Challengers, meanwhile, are left fuming.

"Radanovich is once again trying to manipulate public opinion through deception and is using our tax dollars to do it," Democratic congressional candidate Les Marsden, a Mariposa resident, said via e-mail Tuesday, adding that "he's campaigning by utilizing his franking privileges."

But this old-school mailing tool is also being updated, as incumbents sample new techniques for both mass and targeted communication. From YouTube channels to Twitter accounts, Valley lawmakers are aggressively communicating in new ways.

On Tuesday, for instance, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, delivered a one-minute speech on the House floor urging more jobs in the Valley. Costa's staffers quickly secured a video of the speech and posted it to a YouTube channel. The video, in turn, also can be e-mailed directly to voters.

"We have found it a great way to reach all our communities," said Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck, "and it's almost instantaneous."

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, was an even earlier adopter of political technology, gearing up his YouTube channel in early 2009. Spokesman Andrew House said the new tools "allow people to be even more engaged," with new Facebook postings made regularly.

"You don't really have to spend a lot on mail anymore to communicate with constituents," House said.

Even quicker are the 140-character Twitter statements posted by an increasing number of lawmakers. Radanovich, one of the first Californians with a Twitter account, now has 1,547 followers who savor comments like his Nov. 4 declaration that "government's takeover of healthcare will extend the recession just as FDR's programs extended the great depression."

Traditional mailings take longer than Twitter and YouTube, in part because large mailings need prior approval by a House franking commission. The mailings are not supposed to be overtly campaign-oriented, nor contain "partisan, politicized or personalized" comments.

Radanovich's latest mailing began reaching Valley households late last week. Like many congressional mailings, it includes a short survey whose questions seem designed to steer the answers. For instance, the mailing asks "can the government run your healthcare more effectively than the private sector?"

The mailing also attaches red-inked cost figures to legislative proposals including health care. It does not, however, provide any legislative details.

"Taxpayers should know what their government is spending their tax dollars on and whether or not their congressmen agrees with this Congress and the administration's reckless spending," Radanovich's press secretary Spencer Pederson said Tuesday, calling the mailer "straightforward and factual."

During the first nine months of the year, congressional records show Radanovich spent $5,822 on public mailings while Costa spent $17,814.

During the same period, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, spent $8,807 on mail. Cardoza's last mass mailing, sent in late September, focused on water in considerable detail. Nunes has spent $5,009 this year on mass mailings, primarily on calendars sent to voters.

(e-mail: mdoyle(at)mcclatchydc.com) < <