In contrast to some of his colleagues, Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson prides himself on refusing to exploit taxpayer-financed newsletters for political gain.
Yet last year the Woodland Hills Democrat spent $166,439 on his publicly funded mail--and ranked 11th in the 435-member House on his cost per household. This was a marked increase for Beilenson during his first year representing a new, politically competitive district.
Additionally, Beilenson employs Craig Miller, his longtime campaign manager, to oversee production and distribution of his franked, or publicly funded, mail. This has raised questions about whether the mail is being used to bolster the lawmaker’s political prospects.
Beilenson was not the only Valley-area congressman to spend generously on mailings in 1993. The five area representatives invested a total of $528,991 in newsletters, postcards announcing town meetings, and postage to answer incoming mail. They did so in widely varying amounts.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) spent $123,013, and ranked 24th in the House in spending per address in his district. Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) followed with $114,431, which put him 115th, and Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) spent $88,757 and rated 160th. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) spent only $36,351, and was 358th among House members.
Newsletters, generally featuring photographs of lawmakers and extolling their accomplishments, or at least expressing their concerns, are a target of some critics of congressional spending and those who see incumbents granting themselves electoral advantages.
“House members mailed millions and millions of newsletters, cards and letters during 1993, most of it self-promoting propaganda sent to citizens who never asked for it,” said David Keating, president of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonpartisan group opposed to government spending that is based in Washington and publishes an annual study of mailing costs.
Not so, say Valley-area lawmakers. They defended the mailings in recent interviews as a legitimate and valuable way to dispense useful information or discern constituents’ views. “I take seriously that part of my job which I think involves educating and informing constituents about what’s going on in Washington,” Beilenson said. “The use of the frank is really the only way I have that I can carry out my responsibilities of staying in touch with constituents and being accountable to them.”
Direct mail is a particularly important communications tool for Los Angeles-area lawmakers because--unlike many of their colleagues from smaller towns or rural areas--they receive little media coverage in the sprawling metropolis. This is also true in political campaigns when advertising on television and radio is inefficient and extraordinarily expensive.
Each House member is given an annual limit for franked mail costs based on the number of households in his district. This figure is then multiplied by 67 cents per address. The totals reflect only postage costs, and do not include salaries for aides who write the mailings, purchase and manage constituent mailing lists and oversee computer operations, printing and handling.
Beilenson was only $1,261 short of his ceiling of $167,700. In contrast, Waxman used less than 17% of the $217,093 at his disposal. Unspent funds revert to the Treasury.
In addition, lawmakers can transfer up to $25,000 from their office accounts--which is used to pay salaries and other operational costs--for publicly funded mail.
The Senate has stricter spending limits. In most states, the Senate formula caps costs at about 15 cents per address for mass mailing postage. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation found that 297 House members exceeded the per-household Senate maximum. This included four of the five Valley-area lawmakers.
Beilenson, who spent nearly 67 cents per address, surpassed the Senate ceiling by an estimated $115,927. Berman, at 63 cents per address, was $83,690 above. Waxman, at 11 cents, fell below it. The average cost for all House members was nearly 32 cents.
Beilenson sent three districtwide mailings in 1993. He also sent hundreds of thousands of postcards alerting residents to a series of 16 to 18 regional town meetings in which he presented his views on current issues and answered questions from the audience.
Last year was Beilenson’s first representing the Republican-leaning 24th District, which extends from Sherman Oaks to Malibu in Los Angeles County and most of Thousand Oaks in Ventura County.
He said he spent more, at least in part, because he represents half the district’s residents for the first time, following reapportionment. He spent $147,253 on postage in 1992, or 47 cents per address, which ranked him 103rd in the House. His 1991 total was $88,791.
Beilenson said he held more town meetings than usual to introduce himself to new constituents and inform them of his availability. He said any political benefit was merely a byproduct of performing the job he was sent to Congress to do.
“You stay as close to people you were elected to represent and try to be as accountable to them as you can possibly be,” he said. “If there are some political advantages to that, I think that’s all right.”
Beilenson recalled that he has supported mailing reforms and avoided common practices that he regards as franking abuses. He sends his newsletters to all households in the district and does not mail different pieces tailored to specific groups, such as senior citizens or physicians.
He includes only a single masthead photo of himself in each mailing and generally does not trumpet his own activities or achievements. Rather, he says his mailings are meant to be educational, substantive and even provocative.
Beilenson’s mailings included a questionnaire on reducing the federal deficit and another reporting the results. The second mailing included a long message from Beilenson making the case for the controversial Clinton budget plan, which the lawmaker backed and Republicans opposed.
“Congress took an important step toward restoring the fiscal soundness of government by approving the budget bill containing most of President Clinton’s economic program,” Beilenson wrote. He said he included this even though it might offend some Republican recipients.
A third newsletter focused on reforming the nation’s health care system. Again, Beilenson emphasized the benefits of the Clinton plan, without endorsing the President’s proposal. He said last week that he sought to give Clinton credit for focusing on the need for change although he would like to see a more gradual approach.
Miller, who is based in Los Angeles, has been a part-time aide on Beilenson’s staff for 11 years. He has also run each of the lawmaker’s reelection campaigns since 1982. He is a partner in a firm that organizes AIDS fund-raising events nationwide.
Miller received $6,305 from Beilenson’s congressional staff allowance in 1993.
“He’s involved only with the physical aspects of getting it produced and mailed,” Beilenson said. “I write it, basically.”
Keating of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation called Miller’s dual role as campaign manager and mail aide “incredible.”
“It certainly looks very suspicious to have a campaign manager playing a major role in managing your franked mailings,” Keating said. “There’s got to be a temptation to use tax-funded postages to help his boss’s reelection effort--even if you don’t control the message, by making sure that every last dollar you could spend is spent.”
Beilenson vehemently rejected such a suggestion.
“He doesn’t ‘manage’ them,” he replied. “That’s totally wrong. If Craig weren’t there, there would be exactly as many mailings, they would have the exact same content as they do and someone else would have to be paid to get them out.”
Miller affirmed that his contribution to the mail is strictly technical: handling the logistics of town hall meetings and working with graphic artists, printers, mail houses and the postal service to make sure the pieces have the right look and are delivered in a timely manner. He said he also serves as an adviser on AIDS issues.
He compared his twin roles to that of top Washington aides to many House members who take a leave of absence at election time to run the lawmakers’ campaign. Even if he played a more substantial role in Beilenson’s congressional operation, Miller emphasized, “there would be absolutely nothing wrong” with that.
Berman said that communicating what he is doing and soliciting constituents’ views on issues through the mail are “a fundamental part of being a representative.”
He also sent out a questionnaire on the Clinton economic plan with a cover letter extolling its goals. He sent another letter discussing his efforts to bring an electric vehicle manufacturing industry to Southern California, reduce the State Department’s budget and increase the number of Los Angeles police officers.
“There are tangential, indirect political benefits from incumbency, from being able to communicate, from being able to help people solve their problems, from helping respond to constituent pressures,” Berman said. “There are also detriments, such as our voting records, for which we’re accountable.”
Moorhead sent out two conventional newsletters--replete with photographs of himself meeting with other officials such as Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams and with visiting students on the Capitol steps. He, too, distributed a questionnaire and published the results.
Moorhead’s view on Clinton’s health care plan was negative: “Health Proposal Will Be Painful . . . and Costly,” headlined one newsletter. He also highlighted his 99.67% voting record and his elevation as the senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Through the years, I’ve probably gotten more complaints that I haven’t sent more of them out than that I’ve sent too many,” said Moorhead, who added that he has always done fewer newsletters than permitted. “Far more often people will thank us for sending them.”
McKeon, a freshman who campaigned on a platform of reforming Congress and cutting government spending, sent two newsletters in 1993. The first included some of the proposals he supports to overhaul Congress and combat illegal immigration (the headline said: “Buck McKeon Works to Curb Illegal Immigration”) and a questionnaire. The second, complete with charts and graphs, focused on government spending.
Given his criticism of congressional spending practices and perks, McKeon acknowledged that he was “a little torn” about doing the mailings. But he said the cost hasn’t become an issue.
“I haven’t had anybody say it’s too much money,” McKeon said. “I had people say they want me to send them more. They’ve complimented me: ‘It’s all full of information, it’s not a lot of fluff, like a campaign piece.’ They’ve complained to me about other members’ mail.”
Like Beilenson, Berman, Moorhead and McKeon all sent notices announcing open town meetings. Each of them also said they found the responses to their questionnaires useful.
Critics of the questionnaires, including professional pollsters, say the self-selecting, unrepresentative and small percentage of respondents is not a scientifically valid sample. Moreover, lawmakers sometimes use loaded terms to ask questions that are likely to produce answers that concur with their positions.
Valley representatives generally find that respondents overwhelmingly agree with their stands. Beilenson, who asks constituents to make tax and spending choices to reduce the budget deficit, says that, in his case, he finds this reinforcement reassuring.
“It may well be that the great majority of us do a good job of representing the feelings of people back there,” he said. “At least those who took the time to answer the questions.”
There are restrictions on how far lawmakers can go with their newsletters.
All the mailings must be approved by a congressional franking commission. Each must comply with rules that limit the number and size of photographs of the lawmaker, the number of times his or her name may appear and the use of party labels and partisan references. All mailings must be postmarked at least 60 days before a primary or general election.
Only in recent years have the member-by-member spending totals been public. The figures include the cost of postage for responding to unsolicited constituent mail.
This is usually a small percentage; it accounted for an estimated $13,188, or 8%, of Beilenson’s spending, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation found. Waxman was an exception; his costs were almost evenly split between mass mailings and constituent response.
In contrast to Beilenson, last year Waxman began representing an overwhelmingly Democratic district based on the Westside that includes some Valley residents in affluent communities stretching into the Santa Monica Mountains. He sent out several rounds of postcards announcing community forums but no newsletters.
“We didn’t get around to doing much last year,” Waxman said. “But I support the idea of newsletters to keep people informed of what their representatives are doing.”
‘93 Mail Costs for Lawmakers
Spending Lawmaker Rank Per Address Total Cost Allotment Anthony C. Beilenson 11 $0.669 $166,439 $167,700 Howard L. Berman 24 $0.635 $123,013 $130,607 Howard P. (Buck) McKeon 160 $0.393 $88,757 $152,218 Carlos J. Moorhead 115 $0.460 $114,431 $167,725 Henry A. Waxman 358 $0.113 $36,351 $217,093
Amount Over Lawmaker Senate Limit Anthony C. Beilenson $115,927 Howard L. Berman $83,690 Howard P. (Buck) McKeon $42,928 Carlos J. Moorhead $63,933 Henry A. Waxman -----
Source: National Taxpayers Union Foundation study and interviews