Questionable slush funds

If you thought the 1980 election was expensive - costing a whopping $1.2 billion for all political races, from the local courthouse to the White House itself - consider the fact that many experts now believe outlays for the 1984 contests will be substantially higher. Millions and millions of dollars will be pouring into campaign coffers. And the money flow, it need hardly be added, has already begun, as would-be and announced candidates have taken to the hustings throughout the United States.

There is nothing wrong with campaign contributions, provided they are made in accord with election and tax laws. Citizens' contributions, after all, are an integral part of the American electoral process. It is clearly of concern, however, when such funds are used for purposes other than those intended by the contributor; when campaign funds are diverted into private slush funds used to defray personal expenses of the candidate or officeholder; and when such funds are used in contravention of tax laws. When that happens the American public is justified in crying foul - and demanding that campaign contributions be used for the purposes intended and nothing more.

Should the American public be crying foul today? That is something that appropriate congressional committees and the Internal Revenue Service should determine in light of an enterprising article in the June 20 New Republic. The article, ''The Senate's Secret Slush Funds,'' details how a number of senators have transferred large amounts of money from left over campaign funds into private checking accounts used for personal expenses, for Senate-related costs, and, in the case of at least one senator, to defray costs for the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign.

The irony in all this is that it was the existence of a secret slush fund back in 1952 that almost derailed the political future of Richard Nixon. After news of Mr. Nixon's $18,000 secret fund came to light he went on national television and made his famous Checkers speech. Yet the $18,000 in Mr. Nixon's account pales in comparison to the dollar amounts in some of the current funds - as much as $66,000 in one case. According to the New Republic, monies diverted from campaign coffers have been used for the following purposes:

* Paying $4,000 for a voice coach.

* Leasing, maintaining, and buying insurance and gasoline on two Buicks at a cost of $24,516 for all of 1981 and 1982.

* Using $3,808 to move a senator's family to Washington.

* Using $3,000 to take a wife along on a trip to Korea.

Such expenses may or may not have been made in violation of federal laws. But whether they can be considered ethical uses of campaign contributions is dubious.

The Senate should tighten loopholes in current rules that in effect pave the way for slush funds. Moreover, lawmakers must be more candid with the American people about the high costs of public office - and then provide adequate funds for salaries.

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