Rob Bishop

Two-thirds of Utahns may be getting — or have gotten — a mailer this election year from their congressman, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, this week sent out 140,000 mailers to many of his northern Utah constituents, costing more than $30,000.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, will send one out to his 2nd District constituents before the congressionally mandated mailing deadline in early August.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah — who lost his seat in the June GOP primary — will not be sending out another mailer this year, said his chief of staff Joe Hunter.

Congressmen can send out taxpayer-paid mailers to constituents (and possible voters) in election years, but there are rules to be followed. (They can also send the mailers outside of election season, and many do that, as well.)

A House committee approves the mailers' design and contents (supposedly to keep the mailers from being overly partisan and/or self-promoting). Pictures of the congressman in the mailers can only be so large and appear so many times — his name so large in print. (Bishop's mailer has his name mentioned seven times.) And the fliers can't be mailed between August and the November general election.

"This is just wrong," said Morgan Bowen, Bishop's Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District. "It is nice for (Bishop) to get free campaign advertising gratis of the American taxpayer."

Bill Dew, the Republican running against Matheson, said he had no comment on the mailings.

Both Bishop and Matheson, like other congressmen, have started using their mailers as prequels to telephone town hall meetings, staffers for both representatives told the Deseret News.

"We started using electronic town hall meets last November, and we've found them to be a very efficient way to contact constituents," said Alyson Heyrend, Matheson's congressional spokeswoman. "And the feedback is so positive, people like them."

Bishop's latest mailer says the congressman is a leader in trying to adopt a good national energy policy, including his bill on the declaration on energy, much like the Declaration of Independence. "This is a bill he's pushing as a campaign issue; it is clearly campaign material," said Bowen.

Bishop and Matheson have held several "electronic town halls" over the summer, making telephone calls into homes asking those who answer to "join" the electronic meeting. Bishop's new mailer says: "He may be calling you soon" to join such a meeting.

But who he calls is somewhat at a congressman's discretion — a recipient of the mailer won't be able to decide on his own to call in to the town hall meeting. Congressmen's staff and/or the private provider they pick to manage the meeting uses a list of registered voters' telephone numbers, said Scott Parker, Bishop's chief of staff.

"By law we can't use partisan voter lists" in the callings, said Parker. Congressmen use geography to pick which registered voters will get the mailings, which will get called.

Still, congressmen well know where most of their supporters live, and by mailing and calling into a certain geographic area would be likely to contact more of their would-be supporters in an election year.

"We may put out 20,000 or 30,000 calls and maybe 2,000 people will stay on the line to participate for some part" of what is usually an hourlong "massive conference call," said Parker. It has proven a good way to reach constituents, he adds, and is combined with a dozen face-to-face town hall meetings each year Bishop holds in his district.

Heyrend said the congressmen's telephone scripts — what they are going to talk about — in the callings also must be approved by the House committee, to make sure they are not partisan, like the mailers. And like the mailers themselves, the electronic meetings — paid for by taxpayers — can't be held 90 days before the November election.

Utah's lone Democrat in Congress will hold some Salt Lake County (Matheson's electoral base) telephone meetings before the Aug. 5 "blackout" begins, said Heyrend. Matheson, too, will send out a mailer to those geographic regions beforehand.

"You would be lucky to get 50 people showing up to a (face-to-face) town hall meeting," said Heyrend. "You can get 2,000 or more on the telephone — and you leave voice mails inviting people to contact your congressional office" on the telephones of those who don't answer the calls, she added. In short, electronic town hall meetings are easier for the congressmen and constituents alike and have more participation.

By law, political calls are exempt from any no-call rules. But Heyrend says anyone can ask Matheson's office to take them off of his town hall meeting telephone list, and he will.

Use of the U.S. Postal Services "frank" — as it is known — is nearly as old as the Congress itself.

And nearly every election cycle candidates challenging the congressional incumbents complain about it.

"Congress may be able to do this, but they shouldn't," said Bowen. "Such "constituent" pieces should be restricted to nonelection years only," Bowen added.

Hunter said that Cannon was not planning on sending out a mailer to voters just before the August deadline this summer. "We have done (mailings) before, one earlier this year," said Hunter. "But Chris has never been big on spending a great deal of money on frank mail."


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com