``Vote for Lloyd Bentsen'' has a double meaning in Texas. The Democrat will be on the November ballot for both reelection to the Senate and election to the vice-presidency. This double billing could conflict with federal campaign-finance laws. Senate campaigns can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, while presidential (including vice-presidential) bids are financed solely by the United States Treasury and cannot exceed a ceiling of $46.1 million.
The legislation allowing Senator Bentsen to run for both offices was created by Texas lawmakers in 1959 at the behest of Lyndon B. Johnson, after he joined the ticket of John F. Kennedy.
Now Mr. Bentsen is using the LBJ loophole. But unlike in 1959, today's campaigns are under the eye of the Federal Election Commission.
In 1976, when Bentsen was up for his second term in the Senate, he simultaneously made a presidential bid of his own. John Murphy, then the FEC general counsel, says his ``recollection is we worked this out very comfortably.'' He adds, ``As long as the bookkeeping jobs were kept sanitized there was no serious difficulty.''
The senator folded his run for the White House before the Texas primary. Keeping things ``sanitized'' may not be so simple this time.
``Will bumper stickers or television advertisements urging `Vote for Lloyd' be talking about Bentsen the senator or Bentsen the vice-president?'' asks Dick Leggitt, a spokesman for Republican congressman Beau Boulter, who is running for Bentsen's seat. ``How are they going to separate that out?''
``It's going to be nearly impossible for them to comply'' with FEC rules, Mr. Leggitt says. ``You can't spend taxpayer dollars to get elected to the Senate.''
An FEC official says, ``We've never had anything happen like this before.''
The FEC has a couple of routes it can take to resolve the questions. It could issue an ``advisory opinion'' determining if an activity is in violation of federal law, or it could issue a finding prompted by a citizen complaint alleging that ``a violation is about to take place.'' Says Leggitt, ``I'll be very surprised if no one files a complaint.''
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky complained in a Washington press conference this week that Bentsen is conducting an unfair ``double-barreled'' campaign. Senator McConnell says Bentsen's $6-million political war chest in Texas effectively will be used to elect the entire ticket.
If Bentsen wins both elections and subsequently resigns his Senate seat, Republican Gov. William Clements could make a temporary appointment to fill the vacancy, but a special election would be held within a few months.
Both McConnell and Leggitt contend running for two offices is improper.
``It may be legal to run for two offices,'' says Leggitt. ``But is it right?''