Final 117th Congress DCinbox Pre-Election Update

Incumbents use the perk of official e-newsletters

For over a decade now I’ve run DCinbox.com, an online archive of all the e-newsletters sent by members of Congress to their constituents in their official capacity. This style of communication is the meant to be the online equivalent of the Franking Privilege, allowing sitting members of Congress to write home to their constituents keeping them appraised of their work in D.C.

Every member of Congress is provided with funds to create a website, and everyone of them has an online, .gov presence. As an option, they all have the benefit of being able to send mass emails to constituents who sign up to receive updates. This is a perk of being an incumbent, because though there are restrictions against explicitly asking for votes or campaign donations, members of Congress can use these communications to appear in front of their constituents electronically, to remind them of the work their doing on their behalf, to stake out their positions, and express criticism of other parts of government; all while advertising their name to their home state voters.

So who used this medium and how during the 117th Congress? Perhaps surprisingly, not every member avails themselves to this virtually free constituent communication, though most do. As a matter of maintenance, I use the first Friday of every month to update the database by re-checking the websites for sitting members who haven’t yet sent any official e-newsletters, and being the last update before the election, I’m sharing the ins and outs of who is doing what here so that fellow political communication scholars and interested observers can have a wider sense of who uses this medium. I’ve also included a set of Facebook use stats, as I maintain a list of all House and Senate official pages via Crowdtangle.

These official e-newsletters are not the dry, bill by bill, vote by vote communications you might expect. Instead, many of them involve images that are obvious forms of partisan taunting, and veer into territory that most would assume don’t come from some of the highest elected officials in the United States. But, we all know the online world is weird, and the parts of online spaces used by members of Congress, in their official capacity are no exception. Here are just a few of the images sent this fall, by members to their constituents, using taxpayer funded resources to pay staffers to create and disseminate these messages.

Congressman Paul Gosar, Sun, Sep 4, 11:37 AM, “This Week With Gosar”
From Congressman Andy Biggs, Oct 28, 2022, 3:25 PM, “Newsletter: The Biggs Idea”

Quite different than the Franked Mail of the 1990s…

Rather than get into zany pictures — which would take far too long — the overall use statistics for the 117th Congress paint a broader picture of who uses this medium. As of November 4, 2022 there were 27,653 official e-newsletters sent from 491 different members of Congress to their constituents. Just 12 member have no official e-newsletters set up, and a further 48 have e-newsletters set up, but choose to send no communications in the 117th Congress. The chart below shows the members who sent the greatest numbers of communications:

Espaillat (D-NY) sends multiple updates some days and his office occasionally sends updates in all Spanish — as opposed to others who send combination English and Spanish e-newsletters in one email. Wittman (R-VA) took a big lead in early 117th writing about COVID-19 updates, Mast (R-FL) tends to send single issue, multiple times a week updates, McCarthy (R-CA) is the minority leader and sends substantive updates as well as scheduled bill/committee hearing updates, and Gosar (R-AZ) leans heavily into images and partisan taunting.

Like in all other preceding Congresses, Republicans send more official e-newsletters than Democrats.

In terms of popular themes, for a lot of the 117th Congress, I’ve had a daily process running to identify the most commonly used terms from Democrats and Republicans. These daily postings can be viewed on Twitter by following DCinbox_Daily which updates once a day.

Counts of official congressional e-newsletters mentioning “inflation”

Republicans have been hammering anti-Biden messages and using themes like energy, inflation, and crime. Democrats, as usual for these communications, have had more varied topics including medicare, debt cancellation, student loans, assistance programs, relief, rights, etc.

So what’s to come for the 118th? It all hangs in the party balance, but I expect that the new members, especially from the Republican Party will be quick to get their e-newsletters processes up and running and things will quickly hurtle towards the themes of the 2024 election. Heading into 2 years of divided government may also offer opportunities for necessary bipartisanship, but my expectations around communications are less rosy. I think we are in for more memes, more images, less comity, and a feeling of fractiousness that no one really enjoys. Anyway it goes, I’ll be happy to be capturing and making available this database of official communications for researchers and the public alike.

Remember to vote.

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Lindsey Cormack

I am an associate professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side