As we stumble into a new year under less than entirely auspicious circumstances - it is an election year after all, bound to feature plenty of mud and empty rhetoric, even as the situation in the world looks genuinely ominous - we can expect even more misuse of taxpayers' resources by incumbent politicians protecting their sinecures. What began as a way to facilitate specific correspondence between people and their representatives has evolved into a massive incumbent-protection racket.

The privilege of "franking" mail, with a member of Congress' signature, original or reproduced, standing in for a stamp, was begun to allow members to respond to mail from constituents without breaking the congressional office or campaign budget. It has evolved into a large-scale industry of shameless self-promotion.

An Associated Press review of public records shows that during 2006, an election year, House members spent $20.3 million in taxpayers' dollars to send mailings to constituents and others. Obviously this was more than simply responding to constituents requesting information or clarification about members' position on key issues. Most of it was blatantly self-promotional, featuring glossy flattering photos of the member in question showing off all the roads, bridges and community centers delivered at the expense of taxpayers in other districts. While franked mailings cannot be blatantly political - no direct "vote for me" messages - the boundaries are not always clear, and even "nonpolitical" mailings can have political benefits by reminding voters who represents them and putting a relentlessly positive spin on his or her activities.

Does this give incumbents even more of a leg up come election time? Of course it does. Rep. Ginny Brown-White, a Florida Republican, spent more on taxpayer-financed mailings in 2006 - $129,428 - than her official reelection campaign spent on mailings - about $110,000. Democratic Bay Area Rep. Pete Stark spent $172,357 of the taxpayers' money promoting himself and his ideas.

Republican Rep. Ray Lahood of Illinois, who claims never to have used the franking privilege for mass mailings himself, has repeatedly introduced bills to ban mass mailings, reserving the franking privilege for answering constituent mail only. Of course, those bills routinely die in committee.

The routine use of the franking privilege for self-promotional mass mailings is yet another reason that campaign finance "reform" that limits or tries to equalize campaign spending is unfair (as well as arguably unconstitutional) incumbent protection. Franked mass mailings at taxpayer expense give incumbents an advantage that a challenger can overcome only by spending more.