SHORTLY BEFORE THEY whistled home for the holidays, members of the House came up with yet another ingenious way to line their own pockets. Modestly eschewing fanfare, they slipped a little provision into a big bill that was designed to -- get this -- clean up federal campaign practices. The result is that they grandfathered (or godfathered) themselves into a camouflaged pension plan while outlawing it for any future members. Whenever current members retire, they will be able to keep any unspent campaign money for their personal use.

As part of a bill amending the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, drafters in the Senate sought to prohibit all past and present members of Congress from using campaign funds for personal purposes. That suited senators just fine, since Senate rules already prohibited their doing so. But House members had cause to balk, since their rules did not allow them to pocket anything left in their campaign chests -- if they were retiring and if they paid income taxes on it. To preserve these nest eggs, they inserted a provision stating that all current members of the Senate and House would be subject to the rules of their respective body. Translation: House members could keep their kitties.

This isn't exactly loose change, either. Congressional Quarterly reports that former Rep. John Dent of Pennsylvania transferred some $44,000 from his campaign committee to his personal use after leaving office. Joe Waggonner of Louisiana is reported to have more than $50,600 in his campaign fund. For that matter, all that any current House member need do to build up retirement money is to exaggerate the threat of opposition, solicit contributions and then someday decline to run.

Many campaign contributors may not care what a congressman winds up doing with their money, but if it weren't such a seamy practice, why did the members prohibit their successors from keeping campaign money? The new act does allow future members to contribute leftover campaign funds to charities or other political committees -- a perfectly respectable solution. Why shouldn't current members do the same? Potential contributors may want to ask them that question before dashing off their next checks. But a better solution would be for the House to eliminate the clause of concern entirely.