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Rep. Smucker joins ranks of lawmakers using taxpayer funds for radio ads ‘to reach constituents’

  • By Jaxon White/LNP | LancasterOnline
Representative Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., participates in the creation of a Fiscal Commission Bill during a committee meeting in the Cannon office building in Washington D.C. Thursday Jan. 18, 2024.

 Chris Knight / LNP | LancasterOnline

Representative Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., participates in the creation of a Fiscal Commission Bill during a committee meeting in the Cannon office building in Washington D.C. Thursday Jan. 18, 2024.

In a radio ad aired last month, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker spoke about his work in Congress to advocate for small business owners.

The roughly 60-second ad by the West Lampeter Township Republican outlined how three of his policy proposals could help grow small businesses, which in turn would benefit communities by creating jobs.

“​​When small businesses thrive, our communities thrive,” he says in the ad.

Smucker used $4,149 of taxpayer funds to air that 152-word ad 43 times on two Harrisburg stations – WRBT (94.9 FM) and WHP (580 AM) – in the final two weeks of May.

Congress’ longstanding “franking privilege” has allowed lawmakers to spend taxpayer dollars on newsletters mailed to constituents. In 2001, its definition was expanded to cover all “unsolicited mass communications,” which has been interpreted to include email, pre-recorded calls, and television and radio broadcasts.

Despite safeguards meant to prevent campaigning on the public’s dime, franking has drawn criticism from advocates who say incumbent candidates can leverage their taxpayer-paid mail over their political challengers to increase their name recognition among voters.

Craig Holman, a government affairs and ethics lobbyist with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest nonprofit, said Smucker’s radio ad is “indistinguishable from a campaign ad, other than the fact it is paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Holman said franked communications, dating back to before the country’s founding, often “tout the achievements and name of the incumbent” in the guise of educating constituents.

Stephen Medvic, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said franking has “always been a little braggy.”

“You have to have some mechanism for an elected official to have an easy way to connect with their constituents,” Medvic added. “But it has always played a double role of advertising for the incumbent.”

A Smucker spokesperson said in a written statement that the congressman “complies with all House rules including the stringent rules of the House Communications Standards Commission which require disclosures, prohibit any political activity, and is fully transparent to the American public.”

Smucker’s spokesperson also thanked LNP | LancasterOnline for “highlighting the congressman’s efforts to reach constituents.”

Congressional hopeful Jim Atkinson, an airline pilot who won the Democratic nomination in April to challenge Smucker in November’s general election, said he understands it’s part of Smucker’s job to help “constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy.” But he said he believes Smucker should be using his campaign funds to “advertise that he’s doing at least part of his job.”


Lacking oversight

As of March 31, Smucker had charged taxpayers at least $221,467 for franked communications since entering office in 2017, according to an analysis of his Congressional Statements of Disbursement.

His franked spending peaked last year when he billed $88,200 in communications. A fraction of that – $1,910 – went toward an ad airing on WRBT in late November.

This year, Smucker’s March report showed he had spent $3,952 on franked messages during the first quarter, $1,205 of which was on a radio ad. His spending on communications sent since the beginning of April won’t be disclosed until the second quarter report is released in late August. Information on his spending on radio ads was obtained by reviewing the records of political advertising submitted by broadcasters to the Federal Communications Commission.

All franked communications require approval from the bipartisan House Communications Standards Commission, a six-person bipartisan panel chaired by Ohio Republican Mike Carey that’s charged with regulating all official office communications sent by members of the House.

According to its rules and regulations, updated in 2020, communications paid for with taxpayer funds may only be for “official Congressional business” and may not be used for “the personal business of the sender” or be “targeted based on political party affiliation.”

But Medvic said there are “no teeth behind the commission” and its regulations because “the only real watchdogs are other members of Congress who themselves have an interest in blurring the lines.”

Medvic added that in practice the constraints against campaigning via official communications simply prevent lawmakers from asking outright for votes or donations to their campaigns.

Lawmakers must also target the ads toward constituents within their district. However, Medvic said that members of Congress rarely adhere to the rule in broadcast ads.

When LNP | LancasterOnline shared a February WRBT Smucker radio ad script with Medvic, he said Smucker’s opening line — “Hello Pennsylvania” — sounded like the congressman was extending his reach outside of the 11th District, which covers Lancaster County and the southern half of York County.

WRBT’s audience reaches from its headquarters in Harrisburg to much of south-central Pennsylvania. WHP-AM, where Smucker has been a frequent guest to discuss policy with conservative radio host RJ Harris, is also Harrisburg-based and reaches portions of Lancaster and York counties.

In the February ad, Smucker said his office had helped a Lancaster-based constituent named Gina access Social Security and Medicare benefits. He also said his staff helped David, a York County veteran, receive the medals he had earned through his service in the Vietnam War.

“​​These are real stories… and real results. My office has assisted over twelve thousand constituents since twenty seventeen… and if you need help, please don’t hesitate to reach out,” Smucker said in the script, listing his office’s phone number.

Running the ad 12 times cost taxpayers $1,205. The money comes from Smucker’s representation allowance, which includes funds for supporting staff salaries and other office expenses.

Congressional Research Service report analyzing 2022 figures found members on average spent 3% of their office budgets on franked mail; the top quarter of lawmakers spent 5%.

Smucker that year spent about 5.1% of his $1.3 million allowance on franked communications. He spent the bulk of the rest, about $1.1 million, on staff compensation.

While Smucker spent only a fraction of his budget on franking, other lawmakers have spent much more on purchases that include television ads. Experts who track the spending have said the more endangered a lawmaker’s reelection fight is, the more likely it is that the lawmaker will spend larger portions of their official budget on franking of all types.

There is a ban on sending taxpayer-funded mass communications 60 days before an election, but Holman said it doesn’t prevent lawmakers from sending a significant amount of franked mail inside the 60-day window.

That isn’t the case with Smucker.

His franked spending since he entered office shows that while his total spending has risen since 2020, he regularly spends more between Jan. 1 and March 31 each year — not during the summer months ahead of the September and October blackout period.

Smucker’s spending in the first quarter of each year he’s served varies significantly, peaking at $79,143 in 2023 while totaling just $665.89 in 2017. Smucker spent $3,952 in this year’s first three months.

Other franked communications

Most of Smucker’s franked messages are weekly e-newsletters that include hyperlinks to additional information on his office website and social media pages, according to his disclosure forms filed with the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.

These newsletters include legislative updates from Smucker spanning topics from immigration issues at the U.S.’s southern border to his goal to expand career and technical education programs nationwide.

Smucker also reported sending seven “Instapolls” this year, as of May, to constituents on topics similar to those featured in the newsletters.

Written communications, Medvic said, allow members of Congress to provide more detailed information to voters.

“The broadcasting stuff has always been more controversial,” Medvic said, noting they are often short advertisements. He said that television ads, which Smucker has not spent taxpayer funds on, are often the most similar to campaign advertisements.

Though the present regulations have their critics, Medvic said altering the rules could risk trimming dialogue between lawmakers and those they represent. “You don’t want to curtail legitimate communication with constituents.”

Holman disagreed.

“The franking privilege should end,” he said. “It is costly to taxpayers; most franked communications appear indistinguishable from campaign ads; and it provides an exclusive incumbent advantage in elections.”

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