BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian government editor email@example.com
Q: Are members of Congress still using the congressional franking privilege? This is the practice of sending "official" mail by using a signature instead of a postage stamp.
Because of the postal service's financial difficulties, I am curious as to how much this costs that agency and how often our members of Congress use it. The rules say it's for official business only, but some letters I've received from my congressman veer into politics and campaigning.
-- Evan Jones
A: Yes, members of Congress still use the privilege and they pay the tab with their "representational allowance," said Steve Dutton, communications director for the Franking Commission.
There are many different numbers available for calculating what House members and the House as a whole spend on communicating with constituents.
We chose to go with the "franked mail" category in the Statements of Disbursements the House puts out quarterly documenting all sorts of spending by members.
More specifically, we used the searchable database of disbursement statements that the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation put online because it's easiest to navigate.
The database shows House member offices, committees and legislative offices spent nearly $15 million on franked mail in 2011, down from $25.5 million in 2010.
Here are some other fun facts we found crunching numbers from the database:
* For 2011, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, reported spending $24,826 on franked mail, while Kern County's other congressman, Jim Costa, D-Fresno, reported spending $1,309, the 14th least among individual members who served during any period of the year.
Costa's number is low because his office responds to all email with email, sends e-newsletters to constituents and doesn't receive as much mail as other offices, said spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek.
"Our goal is to effectively and efficiently respond to constituents, and email was the best way for us to do that last year," she said in an email.
* Also among individual House members, Rep. Frank C. Guinta, R-N.H., spent the most on franked mail in 2011: $164,650. Of those who were in office all of last year (some left in the middle of their terms or started their terms during the year), Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., spent the least: $488.
* The average spent on franked mail among all House members who served for any period of time last year was $33,460; the median was $22,344.
* Both McCarthy and Costa spent less on franked mail in 2011 than 2010. McCarthy spent $31,213 in 2010 while Costa spent $52,133.
The spending data from which we gleaned the franked mail figures was so interesting that we thought we'd share what else is in it for McCarthy and Costa.
According to McCarthy's 2011 report, he spent the rest of his district office money this way, according to the database:
* Personnel compensation: $878,296
* Travel: $55,012
* Rent, communication, utilities: $130,460
* Printing and reproduction: $22,375
* Supplies and materials: $31,423
* Equipment: $13,346
* Other services: $65,853
Costa's other spending was:
* Personnel compensation: $998,844
* Travel: $52,964
* Rent, communication, utilities: $131,865
* Printing and reproduction: $5,161
* Supplies and materials: $58,419
* Equipment: $9,748
* Other services: $29,964
Editor's note: A few weeks ago we ran an item about what local lakes, particularly those most used for recreation, are or are not tested for bacteria or other harmful pollutants. We'd been unable to gather information about Isabella Lake by time the item ran.
According to Tyler M. Stalker, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction:
"(The Corps.) tests the lake for potential contaminants, including those from nutrients and metals, but not for bacteria, as part of a monitoring program to determine the overall health of the lake. Typically, we collect samples twice per year from multiple depths from the lake and rivers that flow into the lake.
"Additionally, the Corps has temporarily installed instrumentation to collect water quality data hourly. Among other things, this instrument measures Isabella Lake's pH, salinity and temperature. Test results are not released to the public, but can be made available upon request."
In a nutshell, the non-testing for bacteria is due to lack of "time and resources," he said. The Corps. would test if a situation required it, though that would require setting up some sort of partnership with staff at the facility to develop a sample collection and protocol so any results can be compared to normal conditions, he said.
We also talked to other government agencies that have interests in the lake and they don't regularly test the lake, either.
Ask The Californian appears on Mondays. Submit questions to asktbc@bakersfield. com or to The Bakersfield Californian, c/o Christine Bedell, P.O. Bin 440, Bakersfield, CA 93302.