Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) has spent $367,000 in taxpayer funds on self-promotional mailers since he first took office in 2015. Nearly $100,000 worth of those mailers include content that is almost identical to messages from campaign ads released for his 2020 reelection bid. Copies of the mailers were obtained by The American Independent Foundation.
While the use of taxpayer funds for the mailers is legal and falls within the Senate's franked mail guidelines, which give members of Congress a budget to spend on communicating with their constituents, it seems to directly contradict Daines' own position on government spending.
The $367,000 Daines spent on the promotional mailers since arriving in the Senate is the second-highest expenditure on franked mail of any U.S. senator during that period, according to an analysis of records obtained by The American Independent Foundation.
By contrast, Daines' Montana Senate colleague Jon Tester, a Democrat, spent nothing on franked mail in the same period, even though he faced a tough reelection battle in 2018 in a state that Donald Trump carried by a 20-point margin in 2016.
Daines himself is up for reelection in November, and will likely face Montana's current Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Despite the state's Republican lean, political handicappers at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rate the race a toss-up thanks to Bullock's crossover appeal to GOP voters in the state.
A look at the mailers themselves, which were obtained by The American Independent, shows how strikingly similar they are to the campaign ads Daines has run as he seeks a second Senate term.
One mailer sent between July 2019 and October 2019 is titled "Fighting for Lower Prescription Drug Costs." In it, Daines says that "as Montana's lone voice on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, I have made my top priority to lower prescription drug costs for Montanans."
The mailer says Daines introduced legislation to lower prescription costs that "will greatly help Montana seniors and taxpayers."
Between January 2020 and March 2020, Daines sent out a mailer titled "Serving Montana's Veterans," which says that he is "actively fighting" to "protect Montana veterans from scam artists."
In March 2020, Daines released a campaign ad with near-identical messaging to that in the mailers.
Daines narrates the ad, saying:
America's economy is booming, with record low unemployment and rising wages. But there's still more to do for Montana families. It's why I wrote a bill that says if Congress doesn't balance the budget, they shouldn't get paid. It's why I'm taking on Big Pharma to lower prescription drug prices and why I'm working to protect veteran pensions from scam artists. As your senator, protecting your pocketbook is my top priority.
Daines' spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment on whether he thought the self-promotional mailers were a good use of taxpayer dollars.
But good government groups have criticized the franked mail perk and argued that it is antiquated and should be eliminated.
"Contemporary critics of the franking privilege generally articulate four objections: (1) the franking privilege is financially wasteful; (2) the franking privilege is abused for private and political gain; (3) the franking privilege gives unfair advantages to incumbents in congressional elections; and (4) the franking privilege has become outdated with the advent of other forms of communication," the Congressional Research Service, Congress' nonpartisan research arm, wrote in a 2015 review of franked mail.
In 2018, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced a bill in the House titled the "No Free Campaigns for Congress Act of 2018," which would cap the amount lawmakers could spend on the mailers at $10,000 annually.
"Members of Congress should be using their office budgets to fight for their constituents and serve the people they represent, not help themselves get re-elected," Rosen said at the time.
The bill was not taken up by the then GOP-controlled House.
A previous version of this story stated that Sen. Steve Daines spent $367,000 on mailers with nearly identical content to his campaign ads. The correct amount is nearly $100,000.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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