GOP: Democrats Censoring Mail on Health Care
By Ben Pershing
The partisan debate over health-care reform has trickled down into one of the more arcane corners of the House -- the committee on free mail, otherwise known as the Franking Commission.
One of the perks of being a member of Congress is that each lawmaker is allowed to send "franked" -- or free -- mail, as long as it is related to official business. Members use that ability to send newsletters and legislative updates to their constituents. To ensure that privilege is not used inappropriately, a majority of the bipartisan six-member Franking Commission must approve each piece to ensure it meets some basic guidelines. Mail is blocked only on rare occasions.
But now the commission has gotten involved in the health-care fight, prohibiting several Republican lawmakers from mailing out reproductions of a colorful, labyrinthine chart that purports to diagram Democrats' reform plan. The controversy was first reported by Roll Call.
The chart was produced by the Republican staff of the Joint Economic Committee and has become a popular visual aide on the minority side of the aisle, as the GOP attempts to convince the public that the majority's plan will be a confusing disaster. But Democrats have argued that the chart is an inaccurate representation of their health-care efforts, and for that reason, the three Democrats on the Franking Commission say the GOP can't use it in official mail. House guidelines say that in franked mail, "Comments critical of policy or legislation should not be partisan, politicized or personalized." But what about information that's inaccurate, or -- arguably -- just misleading?
"We have never before censored anybody's presentation of facts this way," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) complained in an interview Friday.
Lungren, the top Republican on both the Franking Commission and the House Administration Committee, said the commission has never traditionally played a fact-checking role. He pointed out that Democrats this year have sent out numerous pieces of franked mail touting the number of jobs created by the economic stimulus package, and while Republicans might disagree with those numbers, they've never moved to block the mail from being sent out.
"We let those things go by, even though we don't think it's true," Lungren said, adding that he knows of at least 15 Republicans who have asked to mail out copies of the health-care chart in question. (For some context, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) explains the chart's purpose here. Ezra Klein mocked the chart here, and includes a chart of Republicans' own health-care "plan." )
The controversy extends beyond the colorful chart. Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for House Administration panel Republicans, said GOP members were also being told by the Franking Commission that they could not refer to "government-run health care" in their mailings, and had to dub it "the public option" instead.
Democrats, led by Franking Commission Chairwoman Susan Davis (Calif.), say they are trying in good faith to negotiate a compromise with Republicans on this subject. If the impasse isn't resolved, watch for the GOP to turn up the volume on the controversy next week.
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