The franking privilege, which allows Members of Congress to transmit mail matter under their signature without postage, has existed in the United States
since colonial times. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the franking privilege served a fundamental democratic role, allowing Members of Congress to convey information to their constituents about the operations of government and policy matters before Congress. Conversely, it also provided a mechanism for citizens to communicate their feelings and concerns to Members (prior to 1873, Members could both send and receive mail under the frank). Congress has also occasionally granted the privilege to various executive branch officers and others. Although the rise of alternative methods of communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have arguably reduced the democratic necessity of franking, Members of Congress continue today to use the frank to facilitate communication with their constituents.
The franking privilege has carried an element of controversy throughout American history. During the 19th century, the privilege was commonly attacked as financially wasteful and subject to widespread abuse through its use for other than official business. Although concerns about cost and abuse continued in the 20th century, strong criticism of the franking privilege developed regarding the use of the frank as an influence in congressional elections and the perceived advantage it gives incumbent Members running for reelection. Contemporary opponents of the franking privilege continue to express concerns about both its cost and its effect on congressional elections.
In attempting to balance a democratic need for the franking privilege against charges of abuse, Congress has routinely amended the franking statutes. In general, the franking privileges granted to Members at any given point in time can be defined by five dimensions: who is entitled to frank mail, what is entitled to be franked, how much material can be sent, where franked material can be sent, and when franked material be sent. Historically, changes to the franking privilege typically have not altered all of these dimensions at once, resulting in a wide variety of legislative arrangements of the franking privilege. Similarly, proposed options for future legislative changes may involve altering some, but not all, of these dimensions.
This report will be updated as legislative action warrants. See also CRS Report RS22771, Congressional Franking Privilege
: Background and Recent Legislation, by Matthew Eric Glassman; CRS Report RL34188, Congressional Official Mail Costs, by Matthew Eric Glassman; and CRS Report R40569, Election Year Restrictions on Mass Mailings by Members of Congress: How H.R. 2056 Would Change Current Law, by Matthew Eric Glassman.