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."
For example, FEC rules state that campaign funds may be used "in connection with the campaign for federal office" but also "in connection with duties of the individual as a holder of federal office." Some items are specifically banned: home mortgages, clothing, personal automobile expenses, country club and health club memberships, vacations, household food, nonpolitical admissions to concerts and sporting events, and tuition.
Otherwise, candidates have a fair amount of leeway in how they spend the money they raise. "I think it's more personal than political," said Stanley Brand, a Democratic ethics lawyer. "Some people are more liberal about money." Some throw lavish fundraisers, Brand noted. "Some are looking for ways to underwrite their existence, and some aren't."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has launched a Web site, http://www.fancyford.com , chronicling the Davidoff cigar gifts and exclusive hotel stays of Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who is running to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The Bergen Record recently tallied up $80,000 in Morton's steakhouse bills that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) amassed over five years as a House member. Menendez was recently appointed to fill an open Senate seat and is battling for a full six-year term against GOP candidate Thomas H. Kean Jr.
Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.), elected to a 13th term in 2004 with 68 percent support, submitted more than 100 meal receipts, many of which were for low-dollar charges from Sonic, IHOP, Chili's and Applebee's outlets. He was more generous with gifts for donors, billing his campaign for $13,235 in Godiva chocolates. "He has it in his head that people love Godiva chocolate," said Hall chief of staff Janet Perry Poppleton, who added that he used to give away hams.
Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), elected in 2004 to a sixth term with 64 percent, filed more than $500,000 in campaign and PAC operating expenses for 2005. He racked up the highest number of Starbucks charges for one year, submitting 24 receipts ranging from $2 to $12. Every purchase was made at the same Main Road Starbucks in Middletown, R.I., near the congressman's home. Kennedy spokeswoman Robin Costello said the location was a "convenient place for his campaign staff to meet."
Rep. John P. Murtha, a 17-term veteran from a solidly Democratic Pennsylvania district, reported $620,066 in campaign operating expenses. Nearly 250 items were related to driving, including $6,800 for gas, car washes and travel-related petty cash charges, and $6,500 to lease a 2003 Buick. Murtha spokeswoman Cynthia Abram said her boss is "very active in local politics" and attends fundraisers and other events for local candidates around his central Pennsylvania district throughout the year.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who was elected to a 17th term in 2004 with 72 percent support, filed one of the longest 2005 campaign expenditure reports, billing about $650,000 in total expenses to his campaign account and Midnight Sun PAC. Young listed $405 in snow-plowing charges, $300 to sponsor Miss Alaska, $345 for fishing licenses and $45 for a ladder. Myrna Maynard, office manager in Young's Anchorage office, said the ladder was needed because the ceiling lights are too high.
The $15,835 in flowers purchased by Brown, a seven-term incumbent who was uncontested in 2004, accounted for more than 10 percent of the total $123,243 Brown spent in 2005 on her campaign. Elias Ronnie Simmons, Brown's chief of staff, said her boss sends floral arrangements costing $60 to $80 apiece to the funerals of constituents. "You never think it's going to escalate like that," Simmons said.
"If you get in the habit of raising a lot of money, even if you don't have real races, the question is 'What are you going to do with it?' " said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime critic of political fundraising and spending and founder of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group seeking campaign finance reform. "The fact is, there's just far more money in politics than anyone actually needs."