Cotton sends second mailer on farm bill, Democrats cry foul

WASHINGTON — For the second time in as many months, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, has sent 4th District constituents a glossy mailer highlighting his support for a stand-alone farm bill, a move Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign said exploits congressional franking privileges for political purposes.

Cotton is likely Republican challenger to the Democratic senator’s re-election bid this year.

In the early stages of their 2014 Senate race, Democrats have hammered Cotton for voting against a farm bill that combined farm and nutrition assistance programs, as has been the custom for 50 years.

“Congressman Cotton’s my-way-or-the highway attitude is why we still don’t have a farm bill, and now he’s spending our taxpayer dollars to promote himself,” said Jeff Weaver, Pryor’s campaign manager.

Caroline Rabbitt, a spokeswoman for Cotton, said the mailing was sent “to proactively answer some of the most frequently asked questions of our official office about the farm bill and explain the congressman’s position on the issue.”

Members of Congress can use office funds to pay for mailings to deliver information to constituents but are specifically prohibited from using these public funds for campaign purposes.

Like all franked mail, Rabbitt said the farm mailings were reviewed in advance by a bipartisan franking commission and approved as meeting its guidelines.

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said Cotton violated no rules with the mailing but that it simply highlighted the need to revoke the franking privilege.

“The franking privilege is designed to be abused by incumbents for election advantage — at the cost to taxpayers in the last election of about $25 million,” Holman said. “In an era in which members of Congress can easily communicate with their constituents about their official duties at almost no cost through the Internet, it is time to end the franking privilege altogether.”

Many lawmakers, including Cotton, rely heaviest on email and Internet social media tools to communicate with constituents because of the cost factor.

House members sent constituents more than 526 million emails or other electronic communications compared to about 17.8 million letters during the first nine months of 2013. They spent just under $3.7 million for the electronic communications, which also include teleconferences, and paid just over $6.5 million for the letters, postcards and other mailers, according to congressional records.

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, was the only Arkansas lawmaker to send franked mail during that period, spending just over $1,700 to deliver 5,192 postcards advising constituents of a new district office in Conway.

The Senate has its own franking rules but Pryor and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said they sent no mailers in 2013.

Cotton did not send any mailers during the nine-month stretch between January and September. The farm issue mailers were sent in early December 2013 and last week. His office declined to say how many were mailed and at what cost. Office totals for mass communications and mass mailings are disclosed publicly in a quarterly disbursement report.

Cotton did spend $5,643 on mass communications during the nine-month period, sending out more than 8 million pieces of electronic communications.

The latest Cotton mailer is a two-page piece illustrated with stock photos that include a small herd of dairy cows standing outside a snow-covered red barn. Overlaying the image is text that reads: “Now more than ever, Arkansas farmers need a helping hand. Congressman Tom Cotton has our back.”

In smaller type, the mailer offers some details explaining Cotton’s reasons for opposing a farm bill that included spending for nutrition programs and supporting a separated version.

On the flip side is another bucolic scene where a man is walking down a snow-covered path with two dogs. Overlaying the image is text that reads: “Congressman Tom Cotton has your back.”

The first mailer, sent to constituents in December, had similar text but different illustrations.