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Media-savvy Congress turns to TV

It is evening in Wichita, Kan., and the day ends like any other. The dishes are cleared. The dog is out. And Rep. Dan Glickman is on the tube. The Kansas Democrat may not rival Carson, but he often manages several appearances a week on one of Wichita's evening news programs, making him something of a fixture in his constituents' lives.

``I'm never too busy to talk to local TV, period, exclamation point,'' Representative Glickman once said. Now, he hastens to add that he is never too busy to talk to newspaper reporters, either. ``I'm not too busy for any local media.''

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Still, TV has become an increasingly pervasive factor in Glickman's life over the last few years - and in the lives of almost every member of Congress. With the development of satellite technology and the proliferation of cable television outlets, it is easier than ever for media-savvy lawmakers in Washington to tout themselves to the voters. Many members are taking advantage of that fact, transforming themselves into virtual television stars back home and, in the process, boosting their prospects for reelection.

``The technology is amazing,'' marvels Charles Searcy, press secretary to Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) of Georgia. Just last month, Senate Democrats installed satellite communications facilities in their in-house TV studio. Last week, Senator Fowler used the facilities to appear ``live'' on seven local broadcasts, answering questions on such disparate topics as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the effect of the trade bill veto on local textile industry. ``That kind of exposure is invaluable,'' Searcy says.

So invaluable, in fact, that the parties have been spurred into a competition of sorts, as Democrats and Republicans vie for the most sophisticated television technology with which to promote themselves. ``The question isn't whether you can make it to the Rotary meeting,'' says one Senate Democratic leadership aide. ``It's: How fast can you uplink to satellite?''

Almost three years ago, the Senate Republican Conference - a policy organization for Republican senators - was first out of the gate with a new $500,000 satellite broadcasting department. Since then, the conference has spent most of its $600,000 a year operating budget on the facility. Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) countered by starting satellite broadcasts from its own $3 million Harriman Center.

The race goes on. The Senate's Democratic Policy Committee - the Democrats' version of the Republican Conference - has copied the GOP and made ``live'' satellite time available to Democratic senators. Moreover, they claim to have one-upped the Republicans: in an area known as the ``swamp'' - a patch of grass outside the Capitol building where TV crews often interview lawmakers - they have installed a television cable outlet connected to their video production facility.

The Republicans, in turn, plan to install a swamp outlet of their own. Moreover, they want to wire every Republican senator's office with video outlets - if only the Democrat-controlled Senate Rules Committee will allow it. ``Senate politics,'' shrugs Republican Conference chairman John Chafee of Rhode Island.

If the competition seems trivial, stakes propelling it are not. In politics, says House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D) of California, ``visibility is everything.'' And there are few ways to better boost one's visibility than by repeated appearances on television.

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Opportunities for such appearances have proliferated over the last few years, thanks largely to a technological revolution that has enabled television signals to be transmitted cheaply by satellite. Local stations have taken advantage of this development, covering daily events in the nation's capital that once would have been left to the networks. Moreover, many station owners have discovered that their local newscasts are relatively cheap ways to generate revenue, and have expanded early evening news programs from half-hour efforts to productions that run up to two hours.

``With the newly expanded broadcasts, stations find themselves with a lot of time to fill,'' says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution media analyst.

And the electronic Congress has helped filled the void. Already, C-SPAN, the public affairs cable TV cooperative, carries live coverage of House and Senate proceedings, as well as significant committee hearings, to cable systems across the country. In addition, the new Democrat and Republican satellite facilities allow lawmakers to send video press releases to stations at home, as well as to hold remote press conferences and ``town meetings'' with constituents. Members pay for the cost of the satellite time out of their office budgets, otherwise local stations pick up the tabs themselves.

``It's incredibly valuable,'' says Robert Vastine, staff director of the Republican Conference, noting that a few Republican senators use the broadcast facility as many as four times a week. ``It gives a member the ability to stay in touch with his home state, even while he has work to do here.''

And while the connection is uncertain, the increased television exposure comes at a time when reelection rates have soared to new highs; in the last election cycle, more than 98 percent of all House incumbents who ran for reelection returned to office. ``We will do a lot to get on TV,'' vows the press secretary of one GOP congressman. ``It saved us in the last election.''

Which is precisely the point that concerns some lawmakers, who believe that the growing predominance of television is transforming congressional life in some undesirable ways. ``The pandering, the speechifying - it can get pretty unbelievable,'' mutters Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah. Indeed, Senator Garn reports, the quest for any kind of media coverage can be obsessive. After he donated a kidney to his ailing daughter, another senator, he recalls, ``came up without saying anything else such as `How are you? How's your daughter?' and said, `Gee, you got great coverage on that, didn't you?'''

But a number of members - particularly those who came to Congress before the television age - suspect that TV brings out the worst in their colleagues. Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi, the venerable chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has never held a press conference in his 47 years as a member of Congress. ``You do your job best when you do it quietly,'' he says, noting with unconcealed disapproval the predilections of more telegenically-minded colleagues. ``Some people just care about getting on TV, but we've got work to do.''

Nowadays, however, TV exposure can be important, not only in boosting one's profile at home, but in Congress as well. Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York has established a reputation as one of the most wide-ranging of the activist lawmakers to come to Congress in the 1970s - but not until his stature in the House was enhanced after an appearance on ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.''

It was after that broadcast, Representative Schumer recalls, that then-House Speaker Thomas ``Tip'' O'Neill Jr. addressed him by name for the first time. ``Millie watched it,'' Mr. O'Neill told Schumer, referring to his wife. ``She told me you were very good and that I ought to start paying attention to you.''

Next Friday: The new foreign policy

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