WASHINGTON — Members of Congress who for years have spent thousands of dollars on mailings to constituents are increasingly using taxpayer money to advertise on Facebook, telling those who've elected them about all the great things they’re doing.

Thirty-nine House members have spent $83,869.87 since last December on Facebook ads, primarily designed to steer people to their official Facebook pages, according to disclosures released recently.

Use of the social media ads within the Capitol has proliferated in the past couple of years, according to reports filed by members of Congress on how they spend tax dollars to run their offices.

Four years ago, just two House members spent a total of $1,026 on Facebook ads, according to the records.

In the first six months of this year, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., alone spent $3,414.29 on Facebook ads. His is only the eighth-highest total in the House.

Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Randy Forbes, R-Va., topped the list, according to a CNHI tally, spending $13,210.91 and $11,338.38 to advertise on Facebook, respectively.

The practice is legal and considered akin to sending brochures or newsletters that tell constituents what their elected representatives are doing, say government watchdogs and congressional staff.

But it raises broader concerns about the sometimes hazy difference between using tax dollars to keep constituents informed and campaigning for re-election, according to watchdog groups.

Congressional "franking," the term used for the taxpayer-sponsored mailings and newsletters, “has long resembled regular campaign materials," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen.

"In fact, with few exceptions, franked mail is indistinguishable to most readers from campaign ads," he said.

The practice has now found its digital twin.

Amy Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Mullin, said the advertisements are an efficient way to reach many constituents with limited resources.

“Much like the goal of any other advertisements, our priority is to inform our constituents of how Rep. Mullin both can work to assist and represent his constituents as efficiently and effectively as possible," she said.

Mullin last week posted pictures of himself on his Facebook page meeting with members of the Oklahoma AARP and visiting a youth camp.

Such Facebook pages are free. Lawrence did not respond to repeated requests for examples of ads bought by Mullin's office.

Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for Gutierrez, said the Illinois congressman's office has been buying ads targeting social media users in his district outside Chicago to get them to follow Gutierrez's official Facebook page. The ads have helped Gutierrez grow his list of Facebook followers to more than 500,000.

That means more people are getting his message, said Rivlin, such as when Gutierrez's staff posted items about appealing to Secretary of State John Kerry for relief for Ecuadorian earthquake victims or praising the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States.

“It fast reaches a lot of people inclined to be interested in the issues he is working on,” Rivlin said.

Rivlin noted that, thanks to social media, people are more inclined to want direct contact with the people they elect.

“People expect to have an interaction with their members of Congress,” he said.

But Holman noted the privilege is giving incumbents in Congress a taxpayer-funded way to communicate with potential voters.

It's a benefit that their challengers do not have.

“Franked mail, including Facebook ads, are simply taxpayer dollars used to promote the election of incumbents,” he said.

Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C., reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites, including The Meadville Tribune and meadvilletribune.com. Reach him at kmurakami@cnhi.com.

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