Pinning Down Rules on Using Campaign Funds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CONGRESSIONAL watchdog groups are lobbying for stronger enforcement of laws that prohibit personal use of election campaign funds.

At the same time, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is now setting new rules to define exactly when the spending of campaign money is personal rather than political.

But any move toward stricter enforcement faces tough opposition.

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``It's one of those rare issues where the Republicans and the Democrats team up,'' says Meredith McGehee, senior lobbyist with Common Cause. Representatives of the two parties' congressional campaign committees, testifying before the FEC, have argued that tighter restrictions on the use of campaign funds could ``impinge on the appropriate discretion of candidates to determine which expenditures are campaign-related.''

Many members of Congress ``railed against'' the FEC's move to tighten its rules on campaign spending during recent appropriations hearings for the commission, said Elizabeth Hedlund, director of the FEC-Watch Project at the Center for Responsive Politics. Ms. McGehee asserts that current practice, particularly among House members, can define a wide range of spending as ``political'' and, therefore, legitimate. ``It's virtually carte blanche,'' she says.

Among the more extraordinary ``campaign'' expenses, as documented by the Los Angeles Times: tickets for the Super Bowl and other professional football games, evening gowns for candidates' wives, country club dues.

Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, is reported to have spent $370,000 in campaign funds on legal fees for himself and his staff - related to a two-year federal investigation of his personal and official finances.

Campaign funds are sometimes used like ``expense accounts,'' says Charles Lewis, head of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, with politicians, for example, ``making speeches around the country loosely tied to their campaigns.''

Mr. Lewis helped lead a major fight against allowing retired legislators to simply pocket their surplus campaign funds, but he admits that a lot of energy left the issue after January 1993, the deadline on such retirement boons. Stories of congressmen who retired before 1993 taking advantage of the clause are still ``absolutely vexing to the public,'' Lewis says. Former Rep. Larry Hopkins (R) of Kentucky, for instance, converted $600,000 in leftover campaign funds for personal use.

Bob Schiff, attorney for Public Citizen/Congress Watch, a research and lobbying group in Washington, says the law governing campaign funds still has many ``gray areas.'' Reformers would like to see the FEC clear them up, but that rule-setting process could take a long time, Ms. Hedlund warns. There are deep splits on the commission over what kinds of prohibitions should be laid down, she says.

The new rules proposed last year by the FEC are a good start, however, McGehee says. Among these is the ``but for'' standard: that a use of funds is OK if the expense wouldn't exist but for the campaign.

Legitimate ``political expenses'' ought to be defined by unmistakable ``bright lines,'' McGehee says.

But that approach has pitfalls, argues Herbert Alexander, a longtime observer of electoral-reform issues who heads the Citizens' Research Foundation at the University of Southern California. ``Because parties no longer are as strong as they were in supporting candidates, candidates have to do their own networking,'' Mr. Alexander says. This involves various kinds of spending to build support in a district or state and ``nurture constituencies.''

Lawmakers have a responsibility to keep in touch with constituents, and travel, food, and even sports tickets can be part of that process, Alexander says. ``I don't condone all kinds of `personal spending,' '' he explains, but these broader needs of people in politics deserve consideration. ``There ought to be greater understanding than many reform groups or journalists would give it,'' he says.

McGehee's comeback? ``People are raising money for campaigns, and that's the purpose it should be used for.''

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