No News Is Good News

As the country nears another election, mailboxes across the nation are filling up with congressional newsletters - the one subscription every citizen receives for free. Yet, even at that price, they're still not good value for taxpayers.

All US representatives (and senators) are provided with public money to publish these newsletters and, under the "franking privilege," send them out with postage. Most offices accelerate the number of newsletters as the election draws closer - and it's not because there's so much summer legislative news. One of the more staggering sights on Capitol Hill is the biennial queue of hundreds of thousands of newsletters in congressional office basements awaiting mailing before the Aug. 7 deadline.

In an age of unlimited information sources, newsletters yield little substantive benefit to constituents. Their jaundiced, out-of-context reports may even be detrimental to balanced civic discussion. Despite objective-sounding titles ("News From Washington"), most offer one-sided articles with breathless headlines ("Congressman Advances Legislation"), along with meaningless photos of the legislator inserted Zelig-like into local activities.

Frankly, the newsletters' only practical use may be in reminding voters of their elected official's name before entering the election booth. As a result, they are not all that different from the campaign mailers that arrive after the deadline - except for who ends up paying the bill.

It is not as if legislators don't realize how self-serving these publications are. The House's Franking Commission already inspects every piece to make sure it is not too "political or partisan" or goes beyond reporting on "official business of the House." The representatives are limited to an average of eight "personal references" (i.e., I, me, Congressman) and two personal photos per page; nor can photos cover more than 20 percent of the page. I have never seen a newsletter that puts the subject in anything but the best possible light.

Last year, Congress took a step toward reforming the process by moving back the mailing deadline from 60 days before an election to 90 days and reducing the postage allowance. There is no reason why legislators should not go further and just cancel the newsletter subscriptions entirely.

*John Solomon, a former congressional aide, is a freelance journalist.

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