Late last month, on a picture perfect fall day, Rep. John Hiler (R-Ind.) strode across the grounds of the U.S. Capitol toward a television camera crew stationed near the building's southeast corner. That area, known as "the triangle," offers a breathtaking view of the Capitol rotunda as a backdrop.

Approaching his press secretary, Chuck Chamness, Hiler asked anxiously: "What am I going to say? What am I going to say?"

After a quick briefing by the aide, Hiler stepped in front of the camera and, with the poise that comes from years of practice, deftly delivered a 30-second attack on the House Democratic leadership for preventing him from offering an amendment to anti-crime legislation.

Two hours later a technician at WSJV-TV in Elkhart, Ind., aimed one of the ABC affiliate's satellite dishes located in a field behind the station on County Road 7 toward the Telstar 301 satellite 22,500 miles above the earth. Setting the dish for the correct video channel and audio frequency, the technician "down-linked" Hiler's message and recorded it on tape.

That night, Hiler's constituents who watched the local news on Channel 28 saw their congressman being "interviewed" on the crime bill then pending before Congress.

But by almost any definition it wasn't news and it wasn't an interview. Except for WSJV's cost for taking the segment off the satellite, the whole operation was financed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign organization of House Republicans. And the "interview" was conducted not by a reporter but by Hiler's press secretary.

Hiler's participation in this subtle ruse is hardly unique. On that same day, the NRCC film crew performed the same ritual for close to two dozen other GOP lawmakers and their aides, just as they do almost every Wednesday afternoon. On a less frequent basis, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provides the same type of service to incumbent House Democrats.

The satellite service is just one of an array of electronic media outlets -- some paid for by the taxpayers -- available to incumbent House members that provides them with almost instantaneous communication links with their districts. It also gives incumbent lawmakers a powerful campaign tool that is seldom matched by their opponents.

Chamness argues that the satellite link merely offsets the disadvantage of being stuck in Washington while Hiler's opponent campaigns full time in Indiana.

"We have a challenger who has press conferences three times a week," said Chamness. "This is a valuable way to get {a message} back to the district in midweek when {Hiler} can't go back there himself."

Just how much the access to such services contributes to the overwhelming reelection rate of House members -- 98 percent or better in the last two elections -- is impossible to determine. It is almost useless for some members -- most urban lawmakers, for example, can rarely get such television exposure.

But political professionals agree that under the right conditions a House member can improve his standing with the voters if he can be seen and heard regularly on local television and radio.

Ed Goeas, a Republican political consultant and former political director of the NRCC, considers the ready access to electronic media a "powerful weapon of incumbency," though less important to members than free mail, staff aides and the ability to appear frequently in their districts.

"It gives you a little hum," said Goeas. "It's more of a supplement to the office operation than a key part" of keeping incumbents in office.

"Mail is still king," said a Democratic aide in discussing the advantages of incumbency, "because mail is something you can control. With media, you don't own it, you don't control it, you just try to manage it."

Yet even if electronic media represent a small-caliber weapon in the arsenal of incumbency, many House members take advantage of it. And in an increasingly media-savvy House, managing the media takes many forms.

Once a month, for example, Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) hosts his own cable television show, a format favored by some lawmakers from districts where it is difficult to get exposure on regular television news programs.

Because Glickman's programs are considered substantive rather than overtly political, he may film them in the House Recording Studio in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. The cost is picked up by the taxpayers. Other than the requirement that such broadcasts be non-partisan, the only restriction is that members cannot use the studio for such services close to an election.

Though Glickman must pay just over $100 for each recording session for the studio time and tape, the cost of his "Window on Washington" show comes out of his office account. The tape is air-expressed to the Wichita cable system.

"It's never really political," said Glickman press secretary Jim Peterson of the show, which usually features Glickman talking over current legislation with other House members or public officials. "They are informational in nature."

But the line between political and informational is sometimes a fine one, as illustrated by a program Glickman did last spring with Rep. E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

The show, aired as the agriculture panel was marking up a five-year farm authorization measure, was timed for maximum appeal in Glickman's largely rural district. And de la Garza needed little prompting to touch on a number of issues of concern to both the Kansans' farm constituents and those around the urban center of Wichita: continued support for farm subsidies, attention to soil and water conservation, and protection of the food supply from pesticides.

At the beginning of the show, de la Garza made a point of telling the cable audience how grateful he was for Glickman's work as chairman of the agriculture subcommittee on wheat, soybeans and feed grains.

The two political parties and the House also provide cheap access to radio for incumbents.

Almost every week, for example, staff aides to Rep. Peter Hoagland (D-Neb.) set up a conference call through the Capitol operator with several radio stations in his Omaha district. These weekly long-distance news conferences keep Hoagland on the airwaves almost constantly even when he is not in his district.

"Radio is very effective," said Gary Caruso, Hoagland's press secretary. "When you are on four or five stations and they are playing it simultaneously in drive-time, you can't avoid hearing it."

The NRCC also makes it easy, and cheap, for its members to get more overtly political messages to the voters via radio. Through a computerized system at NRCC headquarters, GOP members can phone in radio "actualities" and have them sent to any station in their district willing to accept them. In a typical week, 30 to 35 Republican members use the service, which costs only $2 for each actuality that is used by a station.

The steady stream of radio and television messages from incumbent members of Congress would do them little good without the active cooperation of the stations in their districts. Luckily for House members, their growing sophistication in the use of electronic media has come at a time when many news operations have found it just too expensive to maintain their own reporters in the nation's capital.

Though news directors recognize that the use of canned interviews provided by a political party raises questions of journalistic ethics, they also defend the practice.

"It's obviously self-serving," said Larry Ford, acting news director at WSJV-TV, the Elkart station that ran Hiler's comments a few weeks ago. "They are getting the point across as they want to," said Ford, without any chance for the station's reporters to question them.

But with most House incumbents stuck in Washington on legislative business as the fall election approaches, said Ford, the satellite link-up provides some balance to the station's political coverage.

Hiler's Democratic opponent, Tim Roemer, said the Republican's frequent use of the satellite service is just one of the many campaign weapons that give incumbents a lopsided advantage in House races.

"They have the {television} feeds, they have the money and they have the staff," said Roemer. "It's getting to the point where only millionaires and those with access to the money can win."

But Roemer also said that in this year's political environment, in which voters appear to be growing increasingly disgusted with Congress's stumbling on the budget, having Hiler on camera may not be so bad after all.

"I think the way people are feeling about Washington, I wish John Hiler would do one of those three times a day and have the Capitol right behind him," he said. "The more John Hiler plants himself in front of that institution, the better."