Tuesday, December 27, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Free postage and Congress

The holidays would not be the same if a few politicians, or a lot of them, did not try to gain some political advantage from Christmas. For the last dozen years or so, it has been to join the forces of the righteous against the mythical “War on Christmas.”

This year, the warriors were U. S. Rep. Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, and Arkansas’ own Mike Ross of Prescott, the Democratic congressman from south Arkansas. Ross, if you have not heard, is running for governor in 2014.

Ross and Walsh sent a letter asking their colleagues in the House to restore Christmas to the franking rules. They think that it is outrageous that congressmen can’t send Christmas greetings or Hanukkah greetings to the voters back home and have the taxpayers pay for it.

The news has been full of it for two weeks, nowhere more prominently than Fox News, which has been reporting for some time that there was a war against Christmas and Christianity in America.

The day after Christmas, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s weird columnist, Mike Masterson, got into the act. He breathlessly reported the old news that the House Franking Commission had sent a memo on Dec. 12 for members not to wish their constituents “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy New Year” in their franked mail. They could say happy new year or happy holidays in official correspondence as long as the specific holidays were not mentioned.

Masterson, who said he was sickened by the news, suggested that the anti-Christmas rules came from Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” That is an effort to tie it to President Obama, whose opponents like to suggest may be a disciple of the organizer.

Not even close. The franking rules go back to 1974 and the great reform movement that followed the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation to head off impeachment and trial.

There was a desperate movement in Congress and the rest of Washington to restore confidence in the nation’s political institutions, which troughed after Watergate and other scandals involving all three branches of government. Congress passed a number of laws and rules to insure greater ethical behavior by the executive and legislative branches.

One was a law that sought to stop the widespread abuse of the franking privilege, which allows members of Congress to correspond with voters back home and have the taxpayers pay for it. Members got a leg up on re-election by sending holiday messages to voters back home at taxpayers’ expense.

The public was aroused by a report that the House of Representatives spent $36 million of taxpayers’ money in 1973 on promotional mail for congressmen to aid their re-election.

Holiday cards and letters were a big part of it. The 1974 law sought to put a stop to all the franking abuses and reassure people that they were not helping pay for a politician’s year-round re-election campaign.

Ross and Walsh know, though Masterson perhaps doesn’t, that a congressman or a senator can mail Christmas greetings, a Fourth of July message or any religious message to voters as long as they pay for it themselves or through their campaign organization, which all of them have. Some members of Congress actually do that. So does the president of the United States.

That is the way it should be. The taxpayers should not pay for correspondence that is undertaken for purely political purposes. Franking was intended to be for official business. That is what all the taxpayers in America believe, too, if they think about it for a few seconds.

The restrictions on Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah or Happy Thanksgiving are not now and never were attacks on religion but a weak attempt to require a modicum of ethical behavior by politicians.

Remember, this House of Representatives is controlled by the most right-wing bunch to run one house or the other since 1929. Would they be outlawing Christmas?

As for Congressman Ross, we have come to expect little better. — Ernie Dumas