WASHINGTON — In an institution where many members would rather sacrifice a little principle than offend a powerful interest group, U. S. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson is a self-styled provocateur with a purpose.
Here is the Los Angeles Democrat casting one of six House votes against elevating the Veterans Administration to a Cabinet-level department in the face of mega-budget deficits. There, he is arousing a hornet's nest of indignation with an article in the Wall Street Journal arguing that it is "hard to conceive of anything more the federal government could do" for veterans.
Here he goes again introducing a bill to raise the federal gasoline tax by 25 cents--even though he represents a district utterly dependent on, and devoted to, the automobile. Beilenson says the measure would raise $25 billion to lower the federal budget deficit and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by encouraging conservation.
There he is, sitting on the Rules Committee in late 1986, as incoming House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) testifies for emergency legislation to fight drug traffic. Beilenson, concerned that the measure's capital punishment provisions and language weakening the prohibition against the use of illegally obtained evidence would jeopardize civil liberties, challenges Wright. The Speaker-to-be, whose testimony is being filmed for a documentary, fumes.
"There's no sense being in this office, holding the job, unless you can tell the truth, unless you can argue rationally, as thoughtfully as possible, about the major issues that affect the country," says Beilenson, 55, expressing his credo of 26 years in public life.
Votes His Conscience
He acknowledges that he is able to vote his conscience without paying a political price, in part because his controversial actions "are much less spotlighted and people pay less attention to them" in the highly competitive Los Angeles media market, where lawmakers receive relatively little coverage.
Yet, he adds, "a lot of people over time do become aware you've cast a vote or written an article that's not to their liking. But, if they realize you're a reasonable, intellectually honest person, they're still willing to give you the benefit of the doubt."
Voters in Beilenson's largely liberal, Democratic districts have overwhelmingly given the tall, Harvard-trained attorney the benefit of the doubt for 14 years as a state assemblyman and senator and six terms in Congress. He, in turn, has distinguished himself as a cerebral, straight-talking, unglitzy and stubbornly independent-minded lawmaker. Critics add aloof and arrogant as well.
"Tony is a class act," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "He is somebody who speaks his mind, which has ruffled some feathers around the House. He votes the way he thinks he ought to, and that has not always fit in with the team. He is an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful guy."
Colleagues are equally flattering. Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) recalls poet Robert Frost's line about the road less traveled when he discusses Beilenson. Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) likens him to an Old Testament prophet. Even a conservative such as Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland) calls him "an honest liberal who's one of the gentlest, most decent people you'll ever meet."
Still, despite his occasionally maverick positions, Beilenson remains a low-profile representative, a cog in the 435-member House machine but not an engine. Nor is he considered one of the dozen or more power players in the 45-member California delegation.
His photograph recently appeared in a weekly Capitol Hill publication along with seven others under the headline: "Can You Find the Four Real Congressmen?" Among those included in the "Roll Call" lineup were cult figure Larry (Bud) Melman of the David Letterman show and hair-care magnate Vidal Sassoon.
This reflects what Beilenson's present and past election opponents maintain is a glaring deficiency, both in Washington and at home: a low-key, detached approach that fails to do justice to the affluent, well-educated and politically active residents of the 23rd District.
"For the great majority of the most valuable members of the House, it is largely an anonymous job," responds Beilenson, who wrote landmark state social and consumer legislation while in the smaller legislative bodies in Sacramento.
"Many of us here are well-thought-of members who don't make a lot of noise, don't have our names on a lot of legislation, but play effective and necessary roles in the working of the Legislature."
Beilenson's most significant House role is on the influential Rules Committee, where he is the fourth-ranking Democratic member. Rules is the House gatekeeper--deciding which bills reach the floor and how they will be debated. It is a sensitive, if arcane, assignment, through which Beilenson deals with the nuts and bolts of a broad range of important legislation.