Congressman Paul Gosar Uses Taxpayer-Funded Mailings to Preach Small Government

U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, Tea Party Republican and professional tooth puller, is using the largesse of big government to assure his constituents that he's, um, fighting big government.

Granted, it's a hard trick to pull off, but ol' Doc Gosar is nothing if not baldfaced about it. He has been sending out slick, color leaflets to voters in the Fourth Congressional District that tout his valiant crusade against federal excess.

"In Washington," the most recent one reads, "I am known as a tireless advocate for cutting spending and holding big government bureaucrats accountable."

And yet, above and to the left of that is a notation in small type that reads, "This mailing was prepared, published, and mailed at taxpayer expense."

The fliers — which practically are indistinguishable from the sort of campaign literature that fills mailboxes to burstin' during election years — are paid for via Gosar's so-called franking privilege, an age-old government entitlement for incumbent members of Congress, which allows them to send out tons of mail sans postage.

We'll get back to that near-bottomless bowl of gub'mint gravy in a sec. But first, there's something unusual about one piece of pro-Gosar propaganda in particular: a photo featuring the Congressman with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Yuma County Republican Party chair Jonathan Lines.

Lines tells New Times that he only recently learned of the photo and had no idea Gosar intended to use it. As chair of the Yuma GOP, it's Lines' duty to welcome Republican officials when they come through town, he explained, and that often results in a photo op. The photo in Gosar's mailer was shot at the dedication ceremony for Amberly's Place, a family advocacy center in Yuma, which Gosar and Brnovich attended.

Lines says he doesn't always know where his photo will end up, and that he's often not asked for permission. But, he points out, as chair of the Yuma County GOP, he remains officially neutral during primary races, and so his photo cannot be taken as an endorsement, as Gosar faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Buckeye city councilman Ray Strauss.

Asked whether Gosar's use of the photo concerns him, Lines is diplomatic.

"I'm not concerned about one item when it happens, generally — does that make sense?" he says, later adding, "But as the chairman for the Republican Party in Yuma County, I'm always 100 percent impartial prior to the [primary elections]."

Brnovich was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for the AG said that Brnovich was unaware of Gosar's use of the photo and has not endorsed anyone in the CD4 primary. 

The Strauss camp was incensed by the mailer and others sent out by Gosar's office with the use of franking privileges.

Caleb Humphrey, Strauss' campaign manager, e-mailed New Times the following quote from the candidate, blasting Gosar's hypocrisy:

"The incumbent has portrayed himself as an outsider who hates government waste, yet his actions are those of a political-insider who is self-promoting his re-election at our expense. In an election year, taxpayer dollars should never be used in such an incestuous and hypocritical manner as the current congressman is adding to the spending deficit that he claims to oppose."

Asked about the two mailers pictured above, Gosar's communications director Steven Smith told New Times via e-mail that his boss often hosts town-hall meetings and "tele-town hall" calls with CD4 residents, but that not all of his constituents can attend these meetings, so the mailers serve as a way for the Congressman to communicate with them.

"The bipartisan House Franking Commission has to approve every single mailer that we send using our office budget," Smith wrote, "which they did for these two mailers. By law, the mailers are not allowed to reference anything campaign related so the House Ethics Committee would disagree with [the] allegation that this is a campaign flyer."

As for the photo showing Gosar with Lines and Brnovich, Smith stated that "[a]ll photos were taken at public, non-campaign events and literally make zero reference to anything resembling an endorsement."

Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, tells New Times that Congressional mailers often resemble glossy campaign fliers, particularly around election time. Scherb notes, as did Smith, that all mailings go through the U.S. House Franking Commission.

"It's extremely rare not to have a mailer approved by the franking commission," Scherb says.

Members of Congress must adhere to certain restrictions regarding mailings, including a 90-day blackout period leading up to a primary or general election. (The Gosar mailers appear to predate the June 1 start of this period in Arizona, but not by much.) The mailers cannot overtly campaign for a candidate, and there are limits on how many times the elected official's face and name can be used in a mailer. 

Still, Scherb says, members of Congress have "a lot of latitude" when it comes to the look of their mailers and how much they spend on materials, design, and reimbursing the post office.

Franking funds are rolled into a representative's office budget; spending varies from office to office.

"There's a huge amount of leeway in how they spend that money," says Scherb. "If they wanted to spend half of it on frank mail and hire only three or four staffers, they could — though most offices wouldn't do that."

Adds Scherb: "Some offices use the franking privilege excessively, spend tens of thousands of dollars, use fancy consultants and extremely high-definition printing to develop these materials."

Among Arizona's nine representatives to the U.S. House, Gosar franks near the top. According to 2015 figures available via the House of Representatives website, he came in at number three, spending $27,193, nearly all of it during the last quarter. Only Democratic representatives Kyrsten Sinema ($38,197) and Ruben Gallego ($29,717) spent more.

Gosar's fellow Republicans Matt Salmon and Martha McSally weren't far behind him in 2015: Fellow Tea Partier Salmon spent $25,466, McSally $21,169.

During the first quarter of 2016 (the most recent numbers available), Gosar spent $12,611, second only to Salmon, who dished out a whopping $24,659. Salmon's number is interesting, given that he announced in February that he would not seek re-election; Scherb says heavy spending typically correlates to tough re-election battles.

Members tend to see their franking privileges as "extensions of their campaigns," says Scherb, who points out that the overlap between campaign budgets and office budgets indicates the need for an overhaul of the system.

"Congressional letters and responding to constituent mail is one thing," says Scherb. "But when you have glossy fliers coming from Congressional offices, saying how great this member of Congress is and how they saved the world five times over, that really calls into question the need for reforming the franking privilege."

According to a 2015 analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the franking privilege dates back to 17th-century England, where it was instituted by the House of Commons. The word "franking" derives from the Latin francus, meaning "free," but just as there is no free lunch, there is no free mail. Members of Congress reimburse the U.S. Postal Service for "franked mail" with taxpayer money. 

The practice has been controversial over the years. In 1873, Congress suspended franking, which then included mail going both to and from members of Congress, over cries that it was being abused and that it favors the incumbency. The privilege for outgoing mail was reinstated in 1895, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

"The franking system in Congress is grossly outdated and in need of reform," Scherb says. "But given that all members of Congress utilize it and abuse it to some extent, it's highly unlikely it will be reformed anytime soon."

Which means that challengers like Strauss are destined to be outgunned by incumbents like Gosar, who can produce mailers on the taxpayer dime. One local campaign savant told New Times that mailers like Gosar's would cost a non-incumbent 60 cents a pop to produce.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, there are 372,201 active registered voters in CD4. If a non-incumbent paid 60 cents to a private vendor to send a leaflet to each registered voter, the bill would be $223,320.60. If the candidate wanted to zero in on the 156,206 active GOP voters, it could cost nearly $94,000.

Gosar's office has not responded to New Times inquiries regarding the cost and quantity of the Congressman's most recent mailing. 

In an age dominated by social media and e-mail, snail mail remains an extremely effective mode of campaigning.

"When you get something from your member of Congress in the mail, most people are inclined to look at it, to open it," says Scherb. "That's an extremely powerful tool that only incumbents have at their disposal."

Read a History of Franking, courtesy of the Congressional Research Service:

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons