How 18th century rules for congressional 'mail' could work in the 21st
Harris is the CEO of Popvox Inc., an online platform providing information and resources for civic engagement and legislating.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Thursday takes up what some might consider the most arcane, inside-baseball, boring topics on Capitol Hill — but one that I get very excited about given its potential to keep congressional information from going totally off the rails: franking!
The congressional franking privilege, which originally allowed members of Congress to send official mail to their constituents at government expense, dates from 1775, when it was approved by the First Continental Congress. Of course, this privilege was abused over the years, leading to the creation of the Congressional Franking Commission, which is charged with regulating and limiting how official resources are used for communication.
Today, "franking" creates a process for handling incoming constituent correspondence — electronic and paper — and it creates a set of rules for what communications members may and may not send out of their office. For example, campaign material is not permitted. Hill offices also may not process or respond to letters received from outside their states or congressional districts. This makes sense when you consider all the members of Congress who aspire to higher office, and so might be tempted to spread their influence a bit more widely than just to those they are elected to represent. To this day, a letter that arrives from outside the House member's district will be stamped "professional courtesy" and forwarded — usually unopened — to the office of the lawmaker who represents the sender. Similarly, congressional webforms limit incoming messages to residents of the district or state represented by the lawmaker, and the House's "Communicating with Congress" system for digital message delivery will not process correspondence from non-constituents.
Franking also restricts the content and reach of outgoing messages from congressional offices. For example, electronic newsletters may only be distributed to subscribers and must undergo a franking review ensuring they do not include partisan or personal content. Offices may not send more than 500 of the same unsolicited emails at one time. Offices may not use official resources to invite non-constituents to participate in official online or telephone town halls.
As with websites, email and now social media, the Franking Commission has faced a slew of new questions in the past two decades about how official resources should be used by lawmakers online. And that distinction between "official" social media and personal or campaign social media accounts is important, especially given recent lawsuits challenging members' ability to block or mute individuals online. (For an in-depth look at that, see "Public Official Twitter-blocking Unconstitutional?")
As before, franking must balance the need to steward public resources responsibly, counter incumbent advantage, and ensure that official accounts are not used to spread overtly political, personal or false information.
Of course, franking restrictions necessitate an independent review of official content, and that can be time-consuming and frustrating for legislative offices. Already in several Modernization Committee hearings, members have asked how this approval process might be improved and, where possible, automated. That's something the committee should explore.
At the recent legislative data and transparency conference, Lisa Sherman, chief of staff to Rep. Susan Davis of California, shared an innovation on the franking front and what will no doubt be a boon to researchers: a soon-to-be-released public digital hub allowing search (by office and date) of all franking-approved content from the past few years. This treasure trove of publicly accessible information will provide tremendous insight into the messages lawmakers are sharing with constituents using official resources. For those interested in automating some parts of the franking process, this record could also provide data to "train" an automated system to make an initial assessment (subject to human review) and provide automated compliance suggestions to member offices.
If automation of some parts of franking review is a priority for members, it might be time to invite vendors to propose solutions.
The original "frank" was the signature of a member of Congress in place of a stamp. But, of course, our communications today are primarily digital so how might we think about a "digital frank"?
At a time of rising concerns about altered images and "deep fake" videos, it is worth a conversation. Some in the tech industry are already working on ways to provide authentication metadata for documents, images and videos. It is not unrealistic to imagine a near future when the Franking Commission's mandate would expand — from approving use of official resources for creation and dissemination of content, to providing a new kind of digital "frank" or authentication token to verify the content is unaltered and was produced with official resources. The technology exists; the question is whether Congress or the Franking Commission will recognize this kind of information security as falling within its mandate and move preemptively to address the issue.
While the frank may, at first, feel like a relic of bygone days and the Pony Express, the rules developed over the years provide an important guidepost for the current era. At a time of declining trust in institutions, the media and, yes, Congress itself, the Franking Commission is the rare example of an institution that has maintained standards for truthful, apolitical content, something that is needed more than ever. Vive la Frank!