Lawmakers Holding Solid Seats Spend as if They Were Shaky

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rep. Spencer Bachus hasn't drawn a serious opponent in the past three elections. So far, his only 2006 challenger is a write-in with $49 in the bank.

But the Alabama Republican burns through significant sums of campaign cash, as do plenty of other House members sitting in safe congressional seats. Among the items billed in 2005 to Bachus's campaign account and his "Growth and Prosperity" political action committee: $6,689 for U2 concert tickets and expenses as part of a campaign event; $1,298 in lodging in Vail, Colo.; and $270 for the catering of an "American Idol" party.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) spent $15,835 of campaign funds on condolence flowers for constituents, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) used $8,328 of his campaign war chest to buy gifts for his staff, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) was reimbursed for a $1 "meal" at a local gas station, which his staff believes was bottled water.

Some lawmakers say that such expenditures are routine and completely legal under Federal Election Commission rules. But these spending practices are beginning to attract attention from watchdog groups and the news media, as the 2006 congressional campaigns heat up and Congress considers measures to crack down on the perks of office.

A Washington Post review of more than 200 House campaign finance reports filed with the FEC for the past year found that lawmakers from safe districts demonstrated widely differing spending practices. The reports were compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine, an independent, nonpartisan campaign finance Web site.

According to those records, Rep. Mark Edward Souder, a six-term Indiana Republican who was reelected in 2004 with 69 percent of the vote, spent $45,027 in campaign operating funds last year. Most of the money went to cover phone charges, rent, payroll and catering for campaign events.

In contrast, Pence, whose congressional district adjoins Souder's to the south, spent $348,255 in 2005, plus $25,472 from his PAC, after winning a third term in 2004 with 67 percent support.

Pence sought reimbursement for 293 meals in 2005, for a total of $9,806. Most were at fast-food or family-style restaurants, including Wendy's, Arby's, Ruby Tuesday, and various pancake houses and pizza parlors, as well as convenience stores and airport concessions based in Anderson, Ind. Ninety-four of the charges totaled $10 or less. He also paid $4,082 for a 1998 Oldsmobile minivan that he drove throughout his east-central Indiana district.

"When Mike Pence campaigns, he campaigns as if he's in a tight race," said William A. Smith, Pence's chief of staff. He said that his boss prefers one-on-one meetings to big groups, which explains the numerous small charges, and that items are often billed to the campaign, as opposed to the official account, to avoid potential ethics questions. "If he's doing political work, that's going to be part of his campaign budget," Smith said.

Bachus spent $415,000 from his 2005 campaign and political action committee funds on meals, travel, entertainment and other election-related operations. He said he has no choice but to keep up the spending even without a serious challenger.

"Since the campaign registration season remains open in Alabama, I have no assurance at all I won't have serious competition again this year," he said in a statement. "It is only prudent I be prepared."

The government reimburses members for some nonpolitical expenses, such as traveling to and from their districts and attending official events, but the rules are fairly strict. In contrast, the FEC gives lawmakers broad discretion with campaign funds. As Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an independent watchdog group, describes it, "as much as you can raise, you can spend."

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