August 14, 2014

Did you get a tape-recorded message on the phone from Rep. Steve King last week?

The Republican from Kiron visited plenty of local voters with "robo-calls" in the lead-up to an Aug. 6 cutoff date for taxpayer-funded mass communications with constituents.

King was casting the net so widely, in fact, that he called the home phone of Jim Mowrer, his Democratic opponent in November, as well as Mowrer's campaign office and his campaign manager.

Lawmakers are allowed to use funds in their congressional office accounts to send flyers, leaflets, newsletters, surveys and questionnaires to constituents' homes. They can even reach out and touch them with pre-recorded phone messages, up to 90 days before an election.

This all falls under the so-called franking privilege, which members of Congress have used since the founding of the republic to inundate the citizenry with free mail.

Ben Nesselhuf, Mowrer's campaign manager, said King's recording asked for demographic information about the constituent and posed a series of questions on issues like Obamacare, government spending, traditional marriage and abortion.

There was also a question about the "fair tax," the national sales tax that King supports.

Despite the obviously wasted calls to Mowrer and Nesselhuf, the practice is on the up-and-up.

Robert Walker, an attorney at the D.C. law firm Wiley Rein, said members are permitted to reach out with "mass automated phone calls," paid for out of their official congressional budget, as long as they obey the blackout date and other rules.

Walker is an authority on what is and isn't allowed, having served as chief counsel and staff director for both the House and Senate ethics committees.

"I don't see an issue under the franking regulations," Walker told Potomac Watch. "This is specifically discussed in the Members' Congressional Handbook. ... What you're describing would be permissible."

King's questions on issues like Obamacare and abortion, even if framed to highlight the incumbent's own positions, are still part of a survey as allowed under the rules, Walker explained.

If King had urged voters to support the "Fair Tax," Walker said, that would constitute "grassroots lobbying" and be prohibited.

Robo-calls are cheaper for the taxpayer and easier on the local garbage dump than franked mail.

But we are now in the blackout period leading up to the election.

The next robo-calls, or mailings, that you receive from King, Mowrer or any other congressional candidate must be clearly identified as paid for by a campaign committee, not by the taxpayers.


The new House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif), put out his first agenda memo last week outlining legislative plans for the fall.

The House returns from its summer break on Sept. 8 for two weeks of legislative business, followed by another one-week recess. Then the House is back for a Sept. 29-Oct. 2 mop-up session before shutting down until after the election.

Reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which has been beneficial to Iowa farmers and manufacturers, isn't on McCarthy's list for action in September.

McCarthy has said he's perfectly happy to let the bank go out of business when its authorization expires on Sept. 30. Insiders think this is typical theatrics and the bank will be given another, possibly short, lease on life.

Renewal of the wind energy production tax credit and an assortment of other tax provisions wasn't on the list either. Considering House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp's, R-Mich., strong opposition to all so-called tax extenders, including the wind PTC, this one probably will have to be addressed in the lame-duck session if it is to be addressed at all.

So what is on tap in September?

House Republicans will package together their favorite jobs bills and energy bills, which are largely designed to scale back federal regulation, and they will take another stab at Obamacare.

"I will provide additional details on the September agenda later this month," McCarthy wrote to his GOP colleagues.

By and large, he is teeing up "show votes" designed to highlight Republican positions prior to the election.

They will be ignored by the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., undoubtedly will try to hold votes that put vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the best possible light.

In between the votes on message bills, lawmakers will have to come to some agreement in September on an interim spending bill to keep the government operating in the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

That's the real challenge prior to the election.