Dual-Purpose Money

TAKE the money and run? That's a decision 165 members of the House of Representatives are faced with before the 1992 election. These lawmakers have unused funds in their campaign warchests that they may keep for their personal use if they retire at the end of the current term. If they stay in Congress, the money can be used only to campaign.

In 1979 the House prohibited departing members from converting leftover campaign funds to their personal use, but it created a ``grandfather'' exemption for members then in office. In 1989, however, the House terminated the exemption starting in 1993. So this is the last term that members elected before 1980 can serve if they want to keep those accumulated campaign donations for themselves.

Some of their coffers are bulging. Twenty members are sitting on more than $500,000 in unused funds; two members, Democrats Stephen Solarz and Dan Rostenkowski, have political nest eggs in excess of $1 million. Even though many of them are in secure seats, the 165 grandfathers have systematically stashed away contributions over the years, just in case a well-heeled challenger should one day appear or they decide to run for higher office.

There has been much speculation among Congress watchers that many of these lawmakers would retire next year, in order to collect their ``golden parachutes.'' One anticipated result was a larger than normal turnover in the House. Such expectations apparently were wrong, however. Many of the affected lawmakers are among the House's powerful elite, and they want to hang on to their seats.

Besides, they know the press will be watching to see which retiring members pocket money given to them for political purposes. Whether due to press scrutiny or conscience, most of those considering retirement say they will give excess funds to charity.

Campaign finance is still chock full of abuses. But at least no members of Congress hereafter will raise money keeping in mind that they might be feathering their own nests.

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