A congressman from the metro-east used more taxpayer-funded postage last year than any other congressman from Illinois.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, who represents southwestern Illinois including St. Clair County and part of Madison County, led all of Illinois congressmen last year with the use of "franked" mail, a privilege that allows congressmen to send an unlimited amount of mail to constituents for free.
In 2017, Bost sent $91,631 worth of franked mail to constituents in the 12th congressional district, according to congressional reports. The number does not include the cost of printing for the mailers, only postage.
"I have a large, rural area, not quite as large as (U.S. Rep.) John Shimkus, but trying to get the message out, I don’t feel bad about making sure I'm keeping an open line of communication with my constituents," Bost said. "I will use what is available to me to make sure the messages are to my constituents, so they know what we’re doing."
Shimkus, a Collinsville Republican, spent $3,373 on franked mail postage in 2017. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, spent about $34,600 in franked mail postage during the year.
Jordan Haverly, a spokesman for Shimkus' office, said the congressman relies mostly on email newsletters and email follow-ups for constituent outreach.
Shimkus was contacted via phone, email, fax, or letter more than 65,000 times in 2017, and more than 80 percent of the time, the congressman's office responded via email, Haverly said. He added Shimkus typically does not send mass mailings or unsolicited emails.
"Even folks who call, we try to get an email address in addition to a mailing address," Haverly said.
Bost's spending amount could be connected to the upcoming midterm elections.
"A lot of these mailings are usually very friendly mailings that make the elected official look good," said Andrew Theising, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville political science professor. "It would make sense (that) elected officials facing a competitive election would be more likely to get the word out about accomplishments and send a lot of mail just so the constituents at home are reminded that, ‘Hey, I’m your representative in Washington, I’m doing my job.’”
The 12th district race between Democrat Brendan Kelly and Bost, which also includes Green Party Candidate Randy Auxier, has been dubbed a tossup by Cook Political Report. Kelly, the St. Clair County state's attorney, has been listed as part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program.
The second-highest amount spent among congressmen from Illinois was by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Western Springs, in the 3rd Congressional District, who used about $62,300 worth of franked mail postage in 2017.
Lipinski faced a tough primary challenge in March. He defeated Marie Newman 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent.
Bost said his franked mail usage isn't election-related.
"I didn’t even know I was going to have a challenger. Early on in this process I was communicating. I will continue to communicate and I will be able to use those tools available to communicate with my constituents," Bost said. "Those same constituents that might say, 'oh you shouldn’t be franking,' are the same one who are out there saying you don’t communicate with your constituents. You can’t have it both ways."
Bost, who also has an emailed newsletter, has been criticized for not having in-person town halls.
"It's amazing though people are saying 'you're using franking but you're not doing town hall meetings,'" Bost said. "Who sets the standard on what the communication with my people is? I will gladly go before my constituents and say, 'Yes, I am communicating with you.' One of the best responses I get quite often from the franked mailing is the opportunity to reach out to people to get their input and get a survey from them so we could get the information we need. I'm not going to apologize for communicating with my district."
Kelly has been among those to criticize Bost for his use of franked mail and for not having town halls.
Kelly said communications from representatives used to be in letters about issues or congratulating people on accomplishments.
"Turning that traditional form of communication into something that is really transparently and obviously a campaign literature is not what this is supposed to be about," Kelly said. "A nice, friendly letter from your congressman is very different in both cost and intent than a 5-page glossy piece of literature that shows up in your mailbox around election time."
"These are complaints people are kind of just grabbing for," Bost said. "The question is, who is doing the complaining? Is it the people who are already running against me and don’t support me and everything like that, so they’re looking for anything? I think that’s probably the case … If a person is good enough to produce a product for me when I’m campaigning, aren’t they also the ones that should be good enough to produce a product that communicates the message whenever it’s not in a campaign, but is actually when (we’re) doing the work?"
Kelly complimented Shimkus for using digital communication for using email and social media as it is much less expensive.
"It doesn’t waste taxpayers’ money and, frankly, in the 21st century, is more effective, and more user-friendly for the constituent," Kelly said.
"I would encourage Congress to reform this process, reform what can be properly done with communications via mail," Kelly added. "Make it very distinct and different from the campaign apparatus, make sure you can’t use your campaign consultants for what is supposed to be a taxpayer-funded form of communication … I think we have to go back to limiting the mail to good old-fashioned letters."
However, Kelly didn't have a dollar figure of how much representatives should be limited to, which he said is something that would need to be worked out.
"Some districts are larger, some districts are smaller, I don’t want to say there’s some magical number, but there’s got to be a limit and there have to be restrictions in the format of these communications," Kelly said.
Theising said the mailers can be productive for elected officials to use and helpful to the country’s democracy.
"Communication from elected officials to constituents and, the other direction, from constituents to elected officials, is more important than ever," Theising said. "I don’t want to say the franking privilege is a bad thing. It is valuable, I think, for elected officials to communicate with their constituents. Now certainly, self-interest is there. The quality of these communications, from the ones I’ve seen from my member of congress, the quality of these things is very low, and it’s not a sincere attempt to engage me as a voter."