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WASHINGTON -- Congress' biannual rite of postage -- election year franking -- has come to an end, but not without a cost.
Members of Minnesota's congressional delegation spent almost $690,000 over a 13-month period to send out millions of pieces of taxpayer-financed mail, buy Facebook ads and host telephone town halls with their constituents.
As election season approached, the incumbents used the mailers in a variety of ways: to promote job fairs and sponsored legislation, apologize for the end of congressional earmarks and gather input from constituents on issues such as immigration, federal health care reform and "government overspending."
Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., led the state's delegation with more than $200,000 in franking fees during the 13-month period. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., was second, with almost $190,000 in costs.
Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-Minn., racked up the smallest bill, spending $10,035 to send out a 2012 calendar at the end of last year.
The figures from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives cover the period from April 2011 to May 2012, after a new reporting rule took effect. Before that, mass mailings and other franking materials weren't listed separately from other taxpayer-funded communications, such as e-mails.
The congressional frank allows mail to be sent at taxpayer expense. Such mailings are limited to official business and must not contain campaign-related content. The costs include the expense of postage and producing the pieces.
House members have freedom to decide what to spend on franking. On average, each lawmaker has a $1.3 million office budget to spend as he or she sees fit -- on staff, district offices, transportation and communications, among other things.
Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, Democrat Keith Ellison, Paulsen and Republican Chip Cravaack have joined an increasing number of lawmakers going digital with their franking, using funds on Internet ads soliciting 'likes' for their official Facebook pages.
But Congress has imposed restrictions on the franking privilege over the years in an attempt to make mass mailings less promotional and more informational.
A bipartisan commission of lawmakers review and pre-approve each communication, advertisement and telephone town hall script before a member of Congress is allowed to mail it or read it over the phone to constituents.
Congressional records show that, in many cases, first-term House members use their franking privileges more than seasoned lawmakers as a tool to connect with their constituents.
Paulsen spent more than $400,000 in 2009, his first year in the U.S. House, ranking him third in Congress in spending on mass communications. He has dialed spending back in his second term.
With the August primary just around the corner, constituents across most of Minnesota won't have to worry about the glossy mailers and telephone town halls for the remainder of 2012. Franking regulations restrict spending in the 60-day period before a contested election.
Peterson -- the incumbent who spent the least -- is the only member of the Minnesota delegation still allowed to send out the taxpayer-funded material. That's because he's the only incumbent, Republican or DFL, without a challenger in the August primary.