published Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Congressman Scott DesJarlais spends $224,000 on mailings

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.

LOCAL SPENDING

Here are taxpayer-funded congressional mass mailings and communications spending reported by Tennessee's nine congressmen and two area Georgia lawmakers:

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn. -- $282,385.34

Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. -- $196,002.98

Rep. Chuck Fleischman, R-Tenn. -- $93,790

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. -- $88,051.28

Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn. -- $82,519.04

Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga. -- $77,105.52

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. -- $51,891.92

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. -- $35,019.89

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. -- $11,400

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. -- $3,486.66

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. -- $2,814.90

DesJarlais ranked No. 1 in the 435-member House during the fourth quarter of 2011.

Source: 2011 State of Disbursements Reports

NASHVILLE — He's scrimping on most office expenses, but U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., ranked No. 1 in the U.S. House from October to December 2011 when it came to spending on franking or official mailings to constituents, records show.

The 4th Congressional District representative from Jasper, Tenn., spent $224,346.33 on mailings, according to the House's Statement of Disbursements, which details fourth-quarter spending by all 435 congressman.

Records show DesJarlais was also one of the top House spenders on mailings during all of 2011 with $282,385.34. At least three other House members in other states exceeded that. One, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., spent $327,503.90, according to House records.

Because House Chief Administrator Office officials say they don't maintain a database on overall spending on franking, the Chattanooga Times Free Press was unable to independently determine the exact 2011 rankings of spending for the 435 members across all four quarters, which are reported separately.

DesJarlais said in an email statement that "we decided early on that one of our top priorities would be constituent outreach. This strategy has allowed me to incorporate the opinions and beliefs of 4th District residents into the important issues being debated in Congress."

He said "almost every piece of mail my office sends out contains an issues survey. The data that I receive from these surveys plays an important part in making my legislative decisions."

But the congressman's spending is drawing fire from Tennessee Democrats who question why the conservative Republican freshman, who touts government cost-cutting, ranks high in what they charge are sometimes "political-style" communications.

"If someone is going to run on cutting spending, the last thing they should be is the biggest mail spender in Washington, D.C.," state Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said. "It completely erodes his core message, which is cutting government, cutting spending. Especially when they're this political-style mail.

"I don't think people are too keen on their tax dollars being spent on this political campaign," Puttbrese added.

House rules prohibit overt political references in mass communications with constituents. Proposed mailings and other communications are reviewed by a bipartisan panel of congressmen, lawmakers say.

A practicing physician in Jasper before his 2010 upset victory over incumbent U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., DesJarlais said that "as a former small business owner, I know the importance of prioritizing spending."

Poll
Should Congress get free postage?
  • Yes. 14%
  • No. 86%

621 total votes.

He said "while we invested heavily in constituent communications, we cut other portions of our office budget, allowing us to return nearly $126,000 to the treasury" for the year.

House members are allotted about $1.4 million to run their offices, which includes salaries, district office rentals, travel and communications.

Efforts were unsuccessful in reaching state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District, and hopes to oppose DesJarlais in November.

Another U.S. House Republican freshman from Tennessee, Diane Black, of Gallatin, ranked second among the state's nine-member congressional delegation in spending on mailings to constituents for all of 2011.

Black, who represents the 6th Congressional District, spent $196,002.98, according to House records.

Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, of Chattanooga, pulled down the No. 3 slot in mailing expenses among the nine Tennessee lawmakers. Fleischmann, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, reported spending $93,970 over the course of 2011.

"Congressman Fleischmann uses a variety of methods to communicate with the Tennesseans he represents," spokesman Alek Vey said. "He has used mailings to keep constituents informed, and often includes a survey so he can receive feedback."

He noted that "all mailings must be approved by the bipartisan Franking Commission, which ensures that mailings are only focused on his work in Congress."

Spending the least among Tennessee House members was Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, of Brentwood, who represents the 7th Congressional District. She reported spending just $2,814.90 for all of 2011, records show.

Pete Sepp with the National Taxpayers Union said that "for better or worse franking is one of the most visible reminders of a lawmaker's fiscal footprint with his or her taxpaying constituents."

He said candidates running on a "platform of budget restraint often have to carefully balance their desire to communicate with the desire to lead by example on deficit reduction. Being too eager to stay in touch with lots of mail can ironically backfire and give the appearance of being out of touch."

Vanderbilt University political scientist professor Bruce Oppenheimer said there are guidelines to what lawmakers can and cannot do.

"Franking is less important than it used to be because there are now new ways of communicating with your constituents," such as email, he said.

But he said in DesJarlais' largely rural district, "I would suspect that members from highly rural or less educated districts are more likely to rely on franked mail as a means of reaching people."

That would likely explain why some urban or suburban lawmakers spent far less, he said.

As for the fourth quarter stepped-up spending, Oppenheimer noted that "the other thing was that DesJarlais was anticipating a primary" early on. "He didn't know at that point how he would be redistricted. But clearly among the nine house members he was the one viewed as most electorally vulnerable."

The bulk of DesJarlais' stepped-up spending came between Oct. 31 and Dec. 31 as the Republican-controlled General Assembly began behind-the-scenes planning on congressional redistricting in which new political boundaries are drawn.

The $224,363.23 included full-color brochures. During the fourth quarter, House records show, DesJarlais distributed 700,529 "mass communications."

One included a survey on what lawmakers should do "to fix our economy." It was approved by House officials in November.

A "Legislative Update" also was approved by House officials in December. The mailer, which works in five photos of DesJarlais, says the congressman "is working to help create jobs and growth the economy."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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