The people's frank

Victor Navasky

October 01, 1991|By Victor Navasky

PROPOSED: A law permitting you to send letters to your federal senator or representative without a stamp on the envelope. That's right. A people's frank.

After all, the theory of the congressional frank is that it promotes public dialogue, that a more informed electorate is better able to govern itself. As Thomas Jefferson wrote on behalf of the frank, communications between elected officials and their constituents should be "free, full and unowned by any." This, Jefferson said, would "give the will of the people the influence it ought to have."

Why should the frank work only one way? Why not extend it to citizens who want to let their representatives know what's in their hearts and on their minds, as Canada does?

The frank could be an antidote to citizen apathy and alienation. Too many incumbents send out too many newsletters too close to election day. They would be less inclined to propagandize this way if they knew that tomorrow's mail might bring a deluge of objections to such misuse of the frank.

Much has been written about how political-action committees and previous campaign finance "reforms" such as spending limits have inadvertently functioned as a sort of incumbency insurance. But little has been said, except by challengers, about how the congressional frank preserves the status quo.

The only serious argument against a people's frank is that it would cost too much. The postmaster in the House of Representatives has testified that in 1989 the House received more than 260 million pieces of mail from the public, at a cost of about $80 million. Even if the cost of a free mailing privilege were twice that, a country that spends $183 million on the Voice of America can't afford not to invest in the people's right to be heard by their own representatives.

Victor Navasky is editor of the Nation, which is publishing a longer version of this article this week.

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