Some would say it's Grinch-like that members of Congress cannot send any mail pieces from their offices wishing constituents a "Merry Christmas." But read a little deeper into this issue, and chances are you'll be siding with the bah-humbug crowd.
Members of Congress can, of course, extend any holiday wishes they desire on a personal basis: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanzaa or even, with a nod to George Costanza, Happy Festivus. Members of Congress just can't use taxpayer dollars to send these season's greetings if extending such greetings "is the primary purpose of the communication."
This is a good thing. Do you really need to pay for Congressman X's awkward family photo featuring a dozen grandchildren and the family dog in matching sweaters with the U.S. Capitol photoshopped into the background?
While we're on the subject of taxpayer-funded salutations, you may be interested to know that Congress is moving beyond the standard campaign-esque glossy mailers. Elected officials have begun touting their feats of strength on the right-hand column of your Facebook page and Google searches—and you're paying for it!
Since members seeking to pay for these Internet advertisements with taxpayer-funded office budgets are required to file such advertisements with the House Franking Office, my staff and I examined a few of them. What we found may surprise you—or, given Congress's 9% approval rating, perhaps not.
"Congressman X is Fighting the Madness," screams one Facebook ad, "Fighting Plans to End Medicare, Government Shutdown, Giveaways to Big Oil." "Rep. X is working to lower gas prices by increasing American energy production. Find out more and like my page today!" says another. "Congressman X is Committed to Creating Jobs, Driving Down Spending and Shrinking the Size of the Federal Government." Well, apparently not all spending.
Each click on these ads costs taxpayers additional money, as each click-through drives up a member's ad bill.
Members of Congress can also use taxpayer funds to make sure their name pops up when someone does a Google search. As a general example, clicking on the member's name that was primed to pop up with a Google search for the phrase "raising debt ceiling" would cost taxpayers approximately $4.70 per click. Ouch.
Then there are the political hijinks that members of Congress can play using taxpayer dollars. A member trying to lure conservation voters can use taxpayer funds to buy ads on conservation-themed websites. A member with an eye on a governor's mansion can use taxpayer money to purchase ads that will pop up when a person in the member's state searches for "governor" on Google.
So what do all of these ads cost taxpayers every year? The truth is, we don't yet know. The current practice of the House is to shield the actual cost of these ads from public view. And this practice probably won't change any time soon: Both parties engage in this ad buying, so both parties tend to look the other way when it comes to policing the practice.
Sitting members of Congress have abundant opportunities for earned media and press secretaries to ensure that our accomplishments, such as they are, are trumpeted far and wide. Social media have become a useful tool to promote ideas and policies, and many such media are free—or at least don't cost the public anything. Why, then, should members be able to use taxpayer funds to purchase additional name ID for themselves?
Congressman Jeff Flake represents Arizona's Sixth District. He is running for the US Senate seat being vacated by Senator Jon Kyl. Visit his campaign site here. This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, used with permission from Congressman Flake's office.