Op-Ed Options : Politics: Lawmakers increasingly are using opinion pages of influential newspapers to air their views and set the agenda for policy debates.


When Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) recently decided to respond to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's proposal to reshape U.S. foreign aid, he did not rise to speak on the House floor or call a news conference.

Instead, he wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times' Op-Ed page--the page of opinions, commentary and columnists facing the editorial page.

Berman maintained that Dole's bid to shift U.S. foreign aid from longtime allies, including Israel, to emerging democracies and drug-fighting nations, was misguided. Instead, Berman said, the amount of overall foreign economic aid should be increased.

Berman's tactic underscored the growing realization in Washington that public-policy debates sometimes can be shaped more effectively and directly through the Op-Ed pages of major newspapers than through traditional politicking inside the Capitol's marble halls.

Increasingly, lawmakers are seeking to reach opinion makers outside Congress and, at the same time, capture their colleagues' attention on the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and a handful of other papers considered required reading for decision makers.

"It has a much greater impact than just a speech on the House floor," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who writes frequently on foreign affairs.

It also beats buttonholing fellow members in the congressional cloakroom or sending them "Dear Colleague" letters to get their ear.

Dole, in fact, began to reshape this year's foreign aid debate with a Jan. 16 opinion piece in the New York Times. By day's end, the Kansas Republican had defended his proposal before 50 reporters and 12 television cameras at a Capitol news conference, and live on Cable News Network and ABC's "Nightline."

Members of the House and Senate have been writing short opinion articles for major newspapers for more than a decade. Although earlier columns tended to explain a member's position on an issue or respond to a paper's editorial position, today's Op-Eds increasingly seek to set the agenda for the subsequent policy debate.

"There are more and more pieces in recent years designed to control the shape of the first public presentation of the story in a newspaper," said Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times.

Each of the San Fernando Valley-area representatives has written Op-Ed pieces in recent years, although Democratic Reps. Berman and Anthony C. Beilenson and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles have had more published by major newspapers than Republican Reps. Carlos J. Moorhead of Glendale and Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley.

When Beilenson, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wanted to urge the Bush Administration to end aid to the Afghan rebels, he did so by writing an opinion column for the New York Times last May.

He has also done pieces for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor in recent years, scoring with themes certain to arouse controversy. For instance, he criticized the catastrophic-health-care bill in the Post at a time when it was overwhelmingly supported by his colleagues.

Waxman, meanwhile, has repeatedly made his case for a tough, new Clean Air Act on the Op-Ed pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. He has also written widely about AIDS, Israel, health care, smoking, Medicare, acid rain, psychiatry in the Soviet Union and the case for liberalism.

Congressional authors generally have considerable assistance from staff members. Beilenson is the only Valley lawmaker who usually writes his own pieces. The others often have staff members complete a first draft, which they revise and polish, aides said. Waxman said his staff sometimes originates the ideas for some of his columns.

Active and influential lawmakers write as many as six major opinion pieces a year. Some also do weekly columns for newspapers in their districts.

Those with less clout or less to say might place their pieces in smaller hometown papers--often after rejection by the prestige dailies--in an effort to raise their profiles among constituents. The competition for acceptance in publications with national readership is intense.

Op-Eds offer key advantages over other means of communication. For one, lawmakers have an unusually high degree of control over what is conveyed. Traditional media coverage, in contrast, is filtered through layers of compression and interpretation by reporters and editors--to the frequent dismay of officeholders.

The increasing pursuit of the Op-Ed option among members of Congress can be traced to the evolution in the early 1970s of new formats for Op-Ed pages--so named because of their placement opposite the traditional editorial page. Previously, most papers filled their Op-Ed pages with the work of columnists.

But concern over the narrow range of voices led the New York Times and the Washington Post to begin including opinion and analysis pieces from a wider spectrum. Other papers followed.

At the same time, post-Watergate reforms were helping transform Congress into a more open institution, with larger professional staffs, greater emphasis on public relations and more opportunity for younger, media-conscious members to gain exposure.

As a result, said Stephen S. Rosenfeld, deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post: "The pieces are coming in all the time. The press secretaries are calling all the time. It's a steady flow of offers and proposals and requests to entertain."

In general, Op-Ed editors say that, among the many congressional pieces that they do not publish, are those that are "nakedly self-promotional," "airless and lifeless" and "read like they come out of the same machine."

If the goal is to communicate with colleagues, the White House, executive agencies and others who shape federal policy, the publications of choice are the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, according to lawmakers, press aides and congressional analysts.

The criteria by which editorial and Op-Ed page editors say they judge congressional pieces are no different in some respects than for offerings from anyone else: Does a commentary offer fresh and interesting arguments? Is it well reasoned and well written? Is it topical?

But there are some special considerations involved in evaluating congressional submissions.

"We would have to convince ourselves that this person had some standing to write this piece," said Rosenfeld of the Washingon Post. "We're trying to see where the debate is going and who are the interesting participants."

Op-Ed editors agree that the pre-eminent writer in Congress is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), formerly a Harvard University professor, ambassador and Cabinet member, and the author of 14 books and co-author of several others.

"Moynihan writes like an angel," said Jack Burby, a Los Angeles Times editorial writer and former deputy editor of the editorial pages. "It's almost impossible to turn him down."

Still, for all their value, Op-Ed pieces can have a political downside.

Beilenson has written provocative columns calling for increases in the gasoline tax, suggesting that noncombat veterans are receiving more than their due from the government and recommending a reduction in Social Security benefits for the well-to-do. Each politically unpopular position has been prominently featured in his election opponents' campaign leaflets.

"You are leaving a record of what you think, or what you thought that day," said Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a senior adviser to Moynihan. "There's all sorts of areas where it's dangerous to put things in writing, and politics is one of them."

Times research assistant Abebe Gessesse contributed to this article.

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