By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester issued an official newsletter this week touting his record in office, but it might just as well read “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The newsletter, entirely funded by taxpayers, hit Montanans’ mailboxes at the most inconvenient time: The same day Treasure State constituents started receiving the mailer, Tester’s office in Washington, D.C., issued a news release bragging on the senator’s efforts to cut government ad spending.
Tester’s indictment of government advertising was particularly damning. He dubs it “self-promotion” and “wasteful spending.” He’s pushing legislation requiring a 50-percent reduction in federal agency ad budgets.
While Tester’s harsh characterization likely is entirely accurate, the senator isn’t afraid to join in the self-promotion game. His newsletter, a four-page folded brochure, hit some Montana mailboxes Thursday and the rest Friday.
It reads much like a campaign piece, boasting of Tester’s work to protect Medicare, save the U.S. Postal Service , promote women’s health and cut spending – all key topics the senator’s campaign pushes against his Senate challenger, Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Of course, the federal government places strict regulations on when senators and representatives can issue these taxpayer-funded propaganda pieces. Rules prohibit senators like Tester from mailing mass newsletters less than 60 days prior to election, so the senator’s office likely narrowly missed the cutoff date.
Representatives like Rehberg cannot issue mass mailings 90 days prior to election.
Still, the odd timing from Tester ruffled some feathers among Montana conservatives this week.
“… It is quite hypocritical to say in the morning that you want to cut government advertising to save tax dollars and then in then in the afternoon your very own taxpayer-funded mailer hits mailboxes,” wrote right-leaning radio talk show host Aaron Flint on his blog.
Montana House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, tweeted several times about the piece, suggesting Tester broke mailing restrictions. “Would be glad to understand how testers franking privilege has not been abused here?” the lawmaker queried via the popular social media site.
Tester’s ad spending legislation could save significant federal dollars if enacted. According to the senator’s own estimates, the federal government would save $5.5 billion through 10 years if agencies cut ad costs by 50 percent.
The Department of Defense spent $550 million on ads in 2010, Tester’s office said Thursday, while the Commerce and Health and Human Services Departments paid a combined $225 million for ads that year.
“Montanans and all Americans are making responsible decisions and cutting unnecessary spending,” Tester said in the release. “Washington has to cut wasteful spending too, and advertising budgets are a good place to start.”
Tester makes a solid point. Still, there’s no word on if his legislation applies to the legislative branch, which has spent more than $1.4 billion on mass mailings in the last three decades, according to Roll Call.
As some cynical Americans might expect, mass mailing spending by lawmakers skyrockets in election years.
Here’s a breakdown for the past few fiscal years according to the Congressional Research Service:
- 2008: $30.2 million
- 2009: $16.7 million
- 2010: $36.3 million
- 2011: $12.8 million
Congressional mass mailing has plenty of critics. George Lambert, analyst for the Sound Dollar Campaign, calls mailings the “election tool you’re stuck paying for.”
“In this era of real-time news, sending updates about goings-on in Washington via the U.S. Postal Service is a multimillion-dollar expense we don’t need,” Lambert wrote Aug. 27. “Especially when you consider that much of it is simply an effort to get re-elected.”
Tester’s bill awaits hearing in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at Dustin@Watchdog.org. You might also catch him on Twitter using the @DustinHurst handle.