By RAJU CHEBIUM and LEDYARD KING, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Many Republican freshmen who came to Congress last year promising to transform Washington's free-spending culture are no different from most other lawmakers in at least one respect: They mailed out millions of taxpayer-funded fliers and brochures during their first year in office.
That includes four House members from South Carolina, who collectively spent $161,962.72 in taxpayer money on mass mailings during the last nine months of 2011, federal records show.
Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, spent the most among Palmetto State lawmakers -- $112,917.47. He ranked 92nd among all House members in mass mailing expenditures.
Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Lancaster County, the only other South Carolina freshman who sent mass mailings, spent $34,082.77 and ranked 249th.
Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, spent $14,522.48, ranking 287th, and Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, spent $440, ranking 346th, according to records submitted to the House's chief administrative officer.
Reps. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens County, and Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, reported no mass mailing expenses.
The South Carolinians paid for the mailings using money from their annual office budgets, which they have wide discretion to spend as they want.
On average, each lawmaker received a $1.45-million office budget last year to spend on staff, rent for district offices, supplies, equipment and communications.
Gowdy acknowledged the mailings could be seen as a waste of taxpayer money.
"But the flip side of it is this -- I did not spend all of my allocated (annual allowance)," he said. "I returned more than $100,000 to the Treasury. I went into (this year) year frankly not wanting to send out any mail pieces. And I haven't this year, and I'm not going to."
Gowdy's spokesman, Josh Dix, said the freshman did two mass mailings last year.
The first consisted of 29,495 fliers sent mostly to senior citizens in the Fourth Congressional District to reassure them their Medicare benefits wouldn't be cut under a Republican budget proposal unveiled by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The flier also contained GOP talking points about how the Ryan plan would cut waste and fraud in Medicare. It included phone numbers for Medicare, Social Security, the Veterans Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
Congressional mailings sent at taxpayer expense can't contain overtly political messages, and each mailing is reviewed by a panel before it's approved for release. Some mailings use language that could fall on either side of the line.
Gowdy's mailing to seniors, for instance, says "We are fighting to protect benefits for current retirees and strengthen Medicare for future generations ... I am fighting to restore our nation's prosperity and preserve the American Dream for future generations."
Dix said the second mailing consisted of 200,000 fliers sent to all constituents in the district telling them Gowdy had changed office locations and providing the new addresses and phone numbers. The fliers also invited people to share their email addresses with the congressman's staff so they could be contacted for free in the future, Dix said.
The mass mailing figures cover only the nine months from April 1 to Dec. 31. Prior to that, mass mailings were not broken out from other taxpayer-financed mass communications allowed under the congressional "franking" rule. The costs include the expense of producing the piece and the price of postage.
Among the findings:
-- House members sent out more than 77 million pieces of franked mail at a cost of $27.9 million last year. That amounts to an average $63,000 for each of the 444 lawmakers who served at some point during the nine months.
-- Of the 10 lawmakers who spent the most taxpayer money on franked mail, eight were GOP freshmen. Of the 25 who spent the most, 18 were GOP freshmen.
-- About 80 percent of House members -- 347 -- sent unsolicited mail. Those who sent none include eight freshmen (seven Republicans and one Democrat).
The congressional frank, first approved in 1775, is essentially a facsimile of a lawmaker's signature that allows mail to be sent at taxpayer expense. Franked mailings must focus only on official congressional business.
In the House, a bipartisan commission reviews each mass mailing before it's sent and rejects those it deems too political or self-promotional.
Mulvaney didn't respond to requests to discuss his mass mailings.
His spokeswoman, Danielle McAdaragh, said the freshman lawmaker may do mass mailings in the future but doesn't have any planned at the moment.
"As a new congressman in a largely rural district, mail pieces are sent with purpose to reach folks that may not otherwise have access to the congressional office's information, including telephone number, office locations, or dates of caseworker visits," McAdaragah said in a statement.
Mulvaney returned $160,000 in unused money to the Treasury from his 2011 office budget.
Clyburn and Wilson also couldn't be reached for comment but released statements through their offices.
"I have traditionally mailed congressional historic calendars to various constituents," Clyburn's statement said. "The mailings are approved by the oversight committee, and are paid for out of my Members Representation Allowance."
Wilson's statement said mass mailings are only one way to interact with his constituents.
"Our office uses more cost-efficient methods to communicate with those living in the Second Congressional District, including a weekly newsletter, social media outlets, and franking-approved emails," the statement said.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he's not surprised that newer members top the list of frankers -- just like their Democratic predecessors.
"Clearly, this helps make the case that franking is really about protecting incumbency rather than informing their constituents about what's going on in Washington," he said. "It should give some constituents pause about changing the way of Washington, about whether these freshmen are doing that."
The congressional frank is essentially a facsimile of a lawmaker's signature that allows mail to be sent at taxpayer expense.
Newer House members, whom constituents may not know well, typically use the frank more than veteran lawmakers.
House members cannot send mass communications within 90 days of a primary or general election. The restriction is 60 days for senators. Senators tend to spend far less on franking due to a cap on mass mailings in any fiscal year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A study last year by the independent Congressional Management Foundation reported that members tend to send less franked mail the longer they're in office and the better-known they become in their districts.
Republicans captured the House in 2010 by campaigning to rein in the size and scope of government and change the profligate spending habits of a House then controlled by Democrats. Some singled out franking in making their case.
The mailings that GOP freshmen sent out last year covered a range of hot-button topics, including the federal budget, proposed changes to Medicaid, and immigration policies, according to a review of pieces from more than 20 lawmakers. Many included questionnaires asking constituents for their views or publicizing an upcoming town hall meeting in their community.
Eight Republican freshmen reported spending no taxpayer money on mass mailings over the nine-month period.
"I can't say that I'm opposed to it, but we ... decided that we could force ourselves to work harder to be in front of our constituents," said one of the eight, Scott, a member of GOP leadership in the House. "We've tried to master social media as a way of saving money and touching more people and having a conversation and a dialogue more than you can really achieve through direct mail."
Duncan, who returned $200,000 to the Treasury from last year's office budget, released a statement saying, "I've tried to run this office like I managed my small business, providing great services at the lowest possible price. I'm not necessarily opposed to using mass mailings to inform constituents about important issues, but if there's a way to accomplish the same goal more cost-effectively, that's what I'm going to do."
Like the other South Carolina lawmakers, Duncan said he also uses emails, telephone town halls and social media to interact with constituents.
Restrictions have been imposed on the franking privilege over the years to make mass mailings less promotional and more informational. Each communication must be reviewed and pre-approved by a bipartisan commission.
Even so, colorful mailers bragging about a representative's accomplishments and reminding constituents how hard the member works for them are common.
Franking is not much of an issue in the Senate, where rules limit lawmakers to $50,000 for mass mailings in any fiscal year. In 2007, for example, 78 percent of House offices sent at least one mass mailing. Only 28 percent of Senate offices did so.